Why is The Red Book, red? In the corner of my bedroom, a copy of Carl Gustav Jung’s Liber Novus stretches clear across and over the edges of the small, glass table upon which it rests. The book weighs in at almost about ten pounds and is over 15 inches in length. Its sheer size is enough to turn an eye, but its color is what commands my gaze most of all. Between its covers lie the fantasies Jung recorded during his self-experiments with active imagination. Described as the “central book in his oeuvre,” its contents formed the foundation of the psychological framework he would move on to propound. But with the posthumous publication of Liber Novus, that framework may need recasting. Indeed, the record between red leather may challenge the entire edifice of psychology itself, and perhaps even beyond it. In this essay, I situate myself among those who accept the challenge by considering the figures of Jung’s fantasies as living realities. The figure of my focus does not, however, make an explicit appearance in the pages of Liber Novus, but rather, I gesture toward he who may be luring us to open the book in the first place: Eros, that daimonic heartthrob of legend, pulsing in the color red. What new insights might arise if we were to consider Jung’s work in honor of Eros? How would the daimon inform our practice of active imagination? What light, if any, could he shed on the nature of the imagination in general? On reality itself? For guidance in the inquiry to follow, I heed counsel Jung once received: “To understand a thing is a bridge and a possibility of returning to the path, but to explain a matter is arbitrary, and sometimes even murder. Have you counted the murderers among the scholars?”With Eros, I write for the sake of love, life, and understanding—not murder.
Though this essay does not explicitly advance a metaphysics, it gestures toward one with roots in a claim made by Becca S. Tarnas for the ontological reality of the imagination as “a collective source of participatory knowledge.”Tarnas’ claim arises from her discovery of a deep synchronicity between the works of Jung and J. R. R. Tolkien, particularly between their individual Red Books. The latter appear to be separate but coincident records of either man’s journey to the imaginal realm, what Jung may have referred to as the collective unconscious and Tolkien, Faërie. But before deepening into the significance of their parallels, delineating what Jung’s Red Book actually is and why it deserves our attention is in order. In the introduction to its contents, Sonu Shamdasani—the man who for 13 years painstakingly edited and compiled Liber Novus—describes it as “a work of psychology in a literary form.”Commencing in the early twentieth century, Jung’s work on The Red Book arose during a moment of cultural experimentation. “Clear demarcations among literature, art, and psychology had not yet been set;”practitioners of each discipline were inspired by the others. The zeitgeist encouraged an overcoming of conventions, dissolving unanimity around what counted as art, literature, or psychology and what did not. As a result, Jung’s Red Book—with its pages of calligraphic narrative, painted fantasy images, and reflective elaboration—would come to gleam with facets of each.
Jung’s confrontation with the unconsciouswas initiated by a practice of self-experimentation he gradually developed and called active imagination. Prompted by his famous question—“what is my myth?”—Jung developed the practice as a means of engaging the autonomous life beneath the threshold of his awareness, what he had learned to give credence to after paying special attention to the content of his dreams. One motivating aim for his self-analysis was to become a better analyst to his patients: Jung felt he must become conscious of, and thereby gain distance from, his “personal equation,” or the psychological contribution he brought to his practice of psychoanalysis.Notably, Jung was self-described as keeping close allegiance with Immanuel Kant’s transcendental philosophy and the limits it imposed on knowledge.In contrast to more reductive methods modeled by figures like Sigmund Freud, Jung’s ambivalence to Kant’s limits was revealed in his “constructive” analysis exemplified in the practice of active imagination. Through the constructive, Jung sought to engage the “living meaning of [psychic] phenomena…[;] inasmuch as life was essentially new, [Jung thought,] it could not be understood merely retrospectively.”As Shamdasani writes, “Jung differentiated two kinds of thinking…[,] directed thinking and fantasy thinking. The former was verbal and logical, while the latter was passive, associative, and imagistic. The former was exemplified by science and the latter by mythology.”Active imagination for Jung was the art of suspending critical attention to induce and participate with a living stream of images (fantasy). In service to Jung’s archetypally reductive analytic, directed thinking comes in afterward, dissecting the associations fantasy images evoke for the sake of a patient’s psychic wholeness. But inasmuch as he located the archetypes exclusively in the human psyche, Jung remained a dutiful son to Kant’s limits. That is, until his vision of the flood.
The serious momentum of Jung’s self-experimentation began almost a year before the outbreak of WWI, when, “on a train journey to Schaffhausen, Jung experienced a waking vision of Europe being devastated by a catastrophic flood, which was repeated two weeks later, on the same journey… After this experience,” says Shamdasani, “Jung feared that he would go mad. He recalled that he first thought that the images of the vision indicated a revolution.”Jung’s Kantian framework and its agnosticism of any certainty apart from the subject’s projection of a world, held against the prophetic voice of his vision asserting its objective reality, led Jung into a private crisis that would only resolve upon learning of the Great War:
At this moment, Jung considered that his fantasy had depicted not what would happen to him, but to Europe. In other words, that it was a precognition of a collective event…After this realization, he attempted to see whether and to what extent this was true of the other fantasies that he experienced, and to understand the meaning of this correspondence between private fantasies and public events. This effort makes up much of the subject matter of Liber Novus…Thus he took the outbreak of the war as showing him that his fearof going mad was misplaced.
As a result of his direct experience, the limits of Jung’s Kantianism gave way to a deeper subjectivity than he expected, one that placated his fear of insanity by suggesting a very different intimation of reality.
In dialogue with the psychologist James Hillman, Shamdasani compares Liber Novus with the works of artists who were contemporaries of Jung’s like James Joyce and Pablo Picasso; as with the paintings of Picasso or the novels of Joyce, The Red Book resembles a lumen natura, “a form of presentation…sufficient unto itself…[with a] translucency that doesn’t require anything else.”Simply put, the work is a living record of Jung’s experiences with active imagination as an attempt to make sense of what stirred in the collective unconscious. If Jung’s “literary work of psychology” bears so much resemblance to a work of art, why not just call it that? Jung himself was resistant to this idea, but as Shamdasani frames it, perhaps it was merely Jung’s notion of art that disinclined him from treating it as such: “not art for art’s sake,” and so not art, Jung might be thinking, but without fully realizing…[that, in this historical moment,] he’s in the company of people who are revolting against a view of art that has become moribund.”In sync with the zeitgeist and its defiance of conventions, what if Liber Novus were understood as an expression of the early twentieth century “attempt to completely reformulate art as something which could lead to spiritual awakening?”What may differentiate Jung’s work more explicitly from the work of Picasso or Joyce was his insistence on the collective function of interior descent. Rather than revel in the depths, “the real task” for Jung was “to be able to communicate [it] to the contemporary outlook.”“He is not content with finding a solution for himself,” says Shamdasani, “but wants to provide a means of understanding [through his own psychological reflexivity] that would be of therapeutic benefit for others.”Hence, the boon Jung was to offer the collective of his time was not Liber Novus, but the host of concepts he derived from it. After all, it was a science of the soul Jung sought to communicate, an endeavor to which Kant’s limits on knowledge somehow lent confidence.
Today we have an entire school of thought dedicated to Jung’s personal interpretation of the figures he met in active imagination. Figures like the Wise Old Man, Anima, Puer, Puella, Shadow, and Eros have become household terms for many, an advent that, at its best enchants our experience with the universality of archetypes, and at its worst, reduces Psyche to a system of reified concepts. But with the publication of Liber Novus almost fifty years after Jung’s death, we are granted the opportunity to form our own judgements about his recorded confrontation with the collective unconscious. Within Jung’s Red Book, says Shamdasani to Hillman, “you can see the making of his psychology…something quite radical, which reformulates how you understand the man’s work.”Further on in their dialogue Hillman speculates that
the justification for all the other [subsequent] works…[is in] his attempt to understand, rather than just translate it [his experience] into a concept… He has to again and again break into descriptions by saying these are “only.” He cuts them down and puts them forward. He distrusts them. But still that’s what we’re left with… Maybe we have to rethink that question of the language…—anima, animus, shadow, self, process of individuation—and discard thatlanguage, but not altogether a language that is already available in the arts.
Critical of Jung’s conceptual language, Hillman prefers the “rich articulation of experience”in literary art for understanding human nature. “The only axiomatic basis I have,” says Hillman, “is that we are lived by powers that we pretend to understand… They’re our mysteries, they’re our figures, they are occasions of invasion and they are our lives, or at least determine our lives in strong ways.”Therefore, story, because it expresses and concretizes those powers in figures we can relate to, is—for Hillman—an exemplary vehicle for human wisdom. Differentiation from and relationship to those figures becomes a restorative practice for psychological maturity: “the interwovenness between the figures per se, in themselves, is part of the learning, the practice of the image, seeing how they work with each other, what they build, how they influence.”But, accustomed as I am to the binary of fiction and nonfiction—of real versus made-up—how can I accept the reality of fantasy images and their worth for understanding?
Though it may not have been readily embraced by the “medico-scientific” paradigm of Jung’s time, the release of Liber Novus resonated strongly with the spirit of the 21stcentury on its “quest for [the] validation of inner experience[;]… The public isn’t being taken by his ideas as they’ve [historically] been portrayed, says Shamdasani, “but by his actual intense engagement with his own figures.”The zeitgeist after TheRed Book is, perhaps, more open to rethinking the demarcations set in the 20thcentury between literature, psychology, and art. Taking up that challenge, Becca S. Tarnas follows Hillman in his emphasis on story, but without devaluing Jung’s conceptual language entirely. “If we take our fantasy visions and shape them into art,” asks Tarnas, “is that in itself not an hermeneutics, a way of understanding and interpreting what we’ve encountered?”Such an hermeneutics would depart sharply from the positivistic, scientistic charade of knowledge-making touted as truly “objective.” But as Jung himself discovered, the limits of what the human psyche can know through itself bottom out the deeper we go. Therefore, active imagination, Tarnas suggests, may be thought of as
a co-creative enaction between the human organ of the imagination and the non-determined archetypal power of the collective unconscious…the living imaginal reality that is co-created is neither fully objective nor subjective, but rather enactive and participatory, existing as a realm in-between: the middle realm that Plato called the metaxy and that Corbin called the mundus imaginalis, the world of imagination.
Concepts in this purview may be treated more as symbolic instruments for the practical use of thought, but how can we allow the life of fantasy to speak on its own behalf in works of art? What affords such works the status of lumen natura amidst the subjective vagaries of today’s vacuous relativism?
This realm in-between Tarnas posits is what she refers to as the imaginal realm, a level of reality that I—thinking with Tarnas—referenced earlier as a possible analog of Jung’s collective unconscious. The term “imaginal” itself is one sourced to the philosopher Henry Corbin; in contrast to the fanciful use of the word “imaginary,” “imaginal” refers to an actual world, one “that is not simply made up or invented, but rather discovered through imagining perception or active imagination.”Like the sensible world, the realm of imagination is peopled with places and creatures of all kinds; it is a world, Corbin reports, “possessing extension and dimensions, figures and colors…[that are] the object of imagining perception or of the ‘psycho-spiritual senses’…[; a fully] objective and real world with equivalents for everything existing in the sensible world without being perceptible by the senses.”If we are to quip, “just where is this imaginal realm? Show and tell if what you say is real!” Corbin answers by assuring us that here
everything happens contrary to the evidence of ordinary consciousness, which remains oriented within our space. For henceforth the where, the place, is located in the soul; the corporal substance resides in the spiritual substance; the soul surrounds and carries the body. As a result, one cannot say where the spiritual place is located.
Soul, therefore, is that through which imagining perception has a world. Because the imaginal realm—as medium—“makes it possible for all the universes to symbolize with each other…[it] provides the foundation for a rigorous analogical knowledge permitting us to evade the dilemma of current rationalism, which gives us only a choice between the two banal dualistic terms of either ‘matter’ or ‘mind.’”Through the imaginal realm, archetypal powers may achieve union with the sensible world, expressing themselves in and through various facets of instantiated particulars. As a result, psychology, art, and literature may converge in storytelling as valid means of knowing and teaching.
But on what grounds is this claim made? In her dissertation, “The Back of Beyond: The Red Books of C. G. Jung and J. R. R. Tolkien,” Tarnas stories her discovery of the deep synchronicity between the two works. Upon paging through Jung’s, Tarnas recognized an uncanny resemblance to the form and content of Tolkien’s Red Book of Westmarch, a title that refers—not to any specific book published by the literary artist—but to the entirety of his Middle-earth legendarium, the magnum opus of which Tarnas identifies as The Lord of the Rings. Similar themes and figures appear in both works, as do many illustrations of remarkable resemblance. Perhaps most compelling is the coincidence in timing of their commencement in the years leading up to WWI, between 1911 and 1913 to be exact. It was then that Jung’s Red Book period and Tolkien’s work in the Book of Ishness—a collection of drawings he called “Ishnesses, which were symbolic and abstract images arising directly from the imagination…[sharing] in common a raw emotionality evoked by their bold colors, strange shapes, and obscure yet weighty titles”—began.The latter formed the basis for many elements portrayed in Tolkien’s legendarium including narrative scenes, themes, characters, and more. Stylistically, they resonate strongly with Jung’s understanding of active imagination as the concretization of a psychological state in image, leading Tarnas to speculate that Tolkien may have also been undergoing similar visionary experiences as Jung was. After scrupulously comparing their lives and work, Tarnas was led to “posit that the striking parallels between Jung’s and Tolkien’s respective Red Books—as well as certain profound similarities in their interpretations of these materials—offer evidence that these works emerged from a shared ontological source enacted by the participatory imagination.”The host of synchronicities between both works suggest mutual, yet individual, enactions—or co-creative activations—of a supersensible ground pervaded with meaning. “From my perspective,” says Tarnas
the human imagination is participating in a spiritual power that is both non-determinate…and archetypally patterned. Yet these archetypes are not only the psychological concepts that Jung described throughout his career. They are the great archetypal powers that structure our world, giving pattern to the sensible, imaginal, and spiritual domains alike.
Literary art, therefore, consists in the imaginative engagement of universal powers through the vessel of the author’s particular subjectivity. An hermeneutic worth heeding indeed!
Tarnas’ investigation of the synchronicities between Tolkien’s and Jung’s respective works is fascinating, but I here I have chosen to narrow my focus on Jung’s for its explicit mention of the figure I invoke. This is not to say that this figure does not appear under different guises in Tolkien’s work; I would argue the contrary. That essay remains to be written though. Who is this “he,” I reference? Much as he does throughout Liber Novus, the daimon seems to have faded already into the background of this essay. Who is this “he,” I reference? Much as he does throughout Liber Novus, the daimon seems to have faded already into the background of this essay. In Appendix B of the facsimile Shamdasani composed, Jung comments on the reddish light illuminating the household of two central characters in the Red Book, saying that its tint points to Eros. Reflecting on the significance of this seemingly paltry mention catalyzed an inquiry in Tarnas that was the springboard for this essay:
I couldn’t help but wonder, is this perhaps part of why the Red Book is red? It’s a story of learning to integrate Eros, to come into relationship with Eros. Thus, is the color red of the book in honor of Eros?
Why is The Red Book, red? Perhaps the color is a lumen natura of the loving daimon himself; Eros, instantiated as a portal to the imaginal realm. Indeed, a deeper look into the actual practice of inducing and participating in fantasies reveals—in Jung’s and Tolkien’s practices—a basic diplomacy when engaging with the figures who present themselves. Before speculating on the way invoking Eros might inflect our understanding of active imagination, its time to pay him homage. Eros, move center stage—you have the spotlight. Just who are you? “Love,” says Eros, “in your hearts, you know all the rest.” With less majesty, we are told by a voice in Appendix C of Jung’s Red Book that Eros is “only a daimon.”In the more cerebral commentary of Appendix B, Jung describes him as “desire, longing, force, exuberance, pleasure, suffering…dissolution and movement.”“While it does not emit a bright light [as the color red],” Jung writes, “Eros at least provides an opportunity to recognize something, perhaps even by inducing a situation in which man recognize something, provided Logos assists him.”Jung’s reference to Eros as an “it” is something I consider a vestige of his positivistic tendency to collapse the figures of the imaginal realm into concepts or principles. Departing for a moment from how he appears in Jung’s work, I look back further in time to his representation in the dialogue Plato dedicated to him—The Symposium. In the culminating moment of an oratory contest honoring the daimon of Love, Socrates storytells a teaching he learnt during an encounter with the priestess Diotima: “He is a great spirit,” she tells him, from a class of beings who
interpret and carry messages from humans to gods and from gods to humans. They convey prayers and sacrifices from humans, and commands and gifts in return for sacrifices from gods. Being intermediate between the two, they fill the gap between them, and enable the universe to form an interconnected whole…Gods do not make direct contact with humans; they communicate and converse with humans (whether awake or asleep) entirely through the medium of spirits…There are many spirits, of very different types, and one of them is Love.
As Love, Eros is fundamentally in-between, lacking what he desires. And what must the object of that desire be? Why, the Good and the True of course, for how could one love ugliness and falsity? But the achievement of the desired object never quite satisfies Love’s unrest, for as Diotima reveals, Love’s true aim is “to have the good forever.”Only once the beatific vision of True Beauty is realized will Love’s desire be realized and, therefore, understood:
‘Like someone using a staircase, he [the lover] should go from one to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, and from beautiful bodies to beautiful practices, and from practices to beautiful forms of learning. From forms of learning, he should end up at that form of learning from which is of nothing other than that beauty itself, so that he can complete the process of learning what beauty really is…’ So what should we imagine it would be like,’ she said, ‘if someone could see beauty itself, absolute, pure, unmixed, not cluttered up with human flesh and colours and a great mass of mortal rubbish, but if he could catch sight of divine beauty itself, in its single form?’
Diotima’s conclusion is that the beatific vision would result in the living of a virtuous life, one that detaches from the finite beauties of the phenomenal world and reproduces ideas that point to the beatific vision. She also emphasizes using the “right part” of ourselves in order to behold the divine form of beauty, what we might call the Logos, or as Jung defined the spirit in Appendix B, “an independent principle of form that means understanding, insight, foresight, legislation, and wisdom.”The sage, therefore, is the one who abides in Logos alone, reflecting on the perfection of divine forms. It is easy to interpret this narrative as rendering our living lovers as mere rungs on the ladder up to capital T—Truth. Fortunately, though, The Symposium does not end with Diotima’s counsel, rather, it is with Socrates’ lover Alcibiades that we leave off. By unveiling Socrates as Eros himself, Alcibiades excuses mortals from mimicking the partial divinity of spirits. Instead, the phenomenal—and imaginal—figures of our loving attachments may maintain their integrity, preserved by the connection Eros makes between the archetypes and their instantiations in particular people and things. We are not spirits; we are not Gods.
Differentiating from the figures confronted in the unconscious was one of Jung’s primary aims in the practice of active imagination. Ideally, the practice would consist in a rhythmic “alteration of creation and understanding… The unconscious contents want first of all to be seen clearly, which can only be done by giving them shape, and to be judged only when everything they have to say is tangibly present.”Jung’s Red Bookis one such outcome of that rhythm, an expression of what he called the “transcendent function,” or the uniting of conscious and unconscious to form a third through aesthetic and psychologically reflexive expression. Despite his conceptual register in the passage above, Jung’s use of the verb “want” and reference to the unconscious contents as “they” reveal a living quality underlying what he speaks about in the abstract. This same inconsistency repeats in Jung’s response to a letter he received from a Mr. O about his dream of the literary figure Beatrice:
Beatrice, as an anima figure is most certainly a personification; that means, a personal being created in this shape by the unconscious… Treat her as a person, if you like as a patient or a goddess, but above all treat her as something that does exist… It is a very good method to treat the anima as if she were a patient whose secret you ought to get at.
Jung’s advice here about relating to such figures is of the instrumental kind. Indeed, as he writes elsewhere, “by objectifying them, the danger of their inundating consciousness is averted and their positive effect is made accessible.”Jung’s treatment of the Anima figure is peculiar, for as I mentioned earlier, it was in his very differentiation from the voice who proclaimed the objectivity of the flood vision—a figure he eventually refers to as Philemon—that Jung could think himself sane again. “The overall theme of the book,” writes Shamdasani, “is how Jung regains his soul and overcomes the contemporary malaise of spiritual alienation.”But how can Jung possess his soul while at the same time affording her the autonomy and respect she demands? In protest to this, Hillman calls Jung out for what he calls the “personalistic fallacy,” or the mistaken ownership over figures of the unconscious. Rather, “what he reestablished,” says Hillman, “was that the psyche is a living world of imagination and that any person can descend to that world. That’s your truth, that’s what you are, that’s what your soul is. You’re in search of your soul, and your soul is imagination.”Might then the overall theme of The Red Book better be described as the loving restoration of Soul to her majesty?
Jung has run-ins with multiple female figures who he identifies as “his” soul. Especially in the figure of Salome, Jung is entreated to love “his” soul, but initially rejects her. In consideration of the soul’s preoccupation with love and recognition, Tarnas follows Hillman in concluding that perhaps “only when Jung can feel love for these figures is he able to acknowledge the reality of the persons of the imaginal realm.”In doing so, the loving respect due to Soul may encourage her to present herself differently.Echoing Hillman’s sentiment that psychology after The Red Book has to be based on the fantasy image, Tarnas insists that what this “entails is integrating the imaginal depths into one’s sense of self. And it entails recognizing oneself as part of an infinite, enchanted, archetypal whole.”How might Soul appear to us once that move of the imagination has been achieved? “Who has the power,” Tarnas asks,
to allow one to transcend the imaginal realm and the primary realm and to see them as a unified whole? She is soul, she is Anima… [but] the Queen of Faërie is more than the Anima or the personified soul of the individual. She is the Soul of the World, the Anima Mundi in all her glory.
Again, our daimon Eros has faded into the background of this inquiry, but perhaps now we might better understand that tendency of his. Interestingly, though Psyche may be she through whom we have our lives, it seems as though Eros—our patron saint of Love—is indispensable for recognizing her majesty. Just as Jung has difficulty completely differentiating from Psyche, I posit that he does not fully differentiate from Eros either. In what follows I elaborate this claim by considering multiple passages from Chapter XXI “The Magician” of the second portion of Liber Novus, “Liber Secundus.”
As was said earlier, the figure Salome appears throughout the tale as one of Psyche’s primary guises. After her multiple attempts to draw love from him, Jung realizes that he does care for her, though a love he describes as “somewhat.” Lukewarm. “Incidentally,” says the imaginal Jung, “the care I afforded her, was literally,” pressed out of me, rather than something I gave freely and intentionally.”In this scene Salome enjoins Jung once again, saying, “I will carry all your thoughts in my heart. I will kiss the words that you speak to me. I will pick roses for you each day and all my thoughts will wait upon you and surround you.”Jung’s response is one of gratitude, but Salome is not satisfied and persists. Jung struggles against her lure as if in principle:
I: “You are like the serpent that coiled around me and pressed out my blood.” / Your sweet words wind around me and I stand like someone crucified.”
Sal:“Why still crucified?”
I:“Don’t you see that unrelenting necessity has flung me onto the cross? It is impossibility that lames me.”
Sal: “Don’t you want to break through necessity? Is what you call a necessity really one?”
What is the necessity that crucifies Jung? Could it be a notion of Eros that does not fairly mediate heavenly and earthly love? The use of colored text throughout the many dialogues is exemplified by the passage above, distinguishing the various characters when enjoined in expression. Jung almost always appears as a red “I,” while the many guises of Psyche appear in blue. The reader will no doubt have noticed by now my use of color when representing the name of Eros; this is no mere decoration, for his color is what initiated the entire phenomenological study of this essay. Considering Jung’s statement that his newfound love for Salome was something he felt “pressed” out of him, I am led to wonder about the color of his “I.” Is the love that keeps knocking on his door, really his? Jung’s reason for refusing Salome is for her poverty—“I long for the joy of men, for their fullness and freedom and not their neediness,” says he.But is Psyche not she through whom we may realize our ultimate unity with the whole?
Earlier on in their relationship, Jung was repulsed by the eroticism he attributed to Salome. After learning to accept that in her, he finds he can accept it in himself and realizes a desire to love his own self. “But she wants to be with me,” writes Jung, puzzled, and asks, “How, then, should I also have love for myself?” Working this out, Jung writes
Love, I believe, belongs to others. But my love wants to be with me. I dread it. May the power of my thinking push it from me, into the world, into things, into men. For something should join men together, something should be a bridge. It is the most difficult temptation, if even my love wants me!
Jung cannot understand how he might reconcile what seems like the sacrifice of loving himself if he were to love Salome, too. Psyche, having at this point taken on her serpentine form, reminds Jung that, “as has been said, you are allowed to make demands of yourself.”Rather than think it over, Jung wonders what he must do. “I have a feeling,” says Jung, “that I must soar over my own head.”Psyche then transfigures herself into a bird and soars overhead for him, returning with a royal crown of gold found “on a street in the immeasurable space of Heaven.”The crown, says the Bird, has “lettering incised within; what does it say? ‘Love never ends.’ A gift from Heaven.”For Jung, this is a riddle, but for the Bird there is nothing to else to say: a lumen natura, “it truly speaks for itself.”Salome’s return finds Jung hanging “high on the summit of the tree of life,” beyond her reach. Upon learning that Jung has the crown in his possession, Salome becomes ecstatic, celebrating his luck. “The crown—you are to be crowned!” she exclaims, “what blessedness for me and you!”But still, Jung thinks it an incomprehensible riddle. “Hang until you understand,”says Salome cruelly.
Hanging there alone, Jung senses his weariness, “weary not only of hanging,” he says, “but of struggling after the immeasurable.”Here again I am reminded of Diotima’s speech about Eros and the world-denying interpretation it can make possible. Could we imagine a way to think love that preserves the intrinsic worth of the phenomenal and the divine? But in this moment Jung finds recourse to thought, for what else can he do as he hangs there? “Is it really true,” he asks, “shall love never end? If this was a blessed message to them, what is it for me?” His answer comes from a Raven who suddenly perches nearby: “That depends entirely on the notion,” says the Raven:
I: “Why does it depend entirely on the notion?
Raven: “On your notion of love and the other.”
I: “I know, unlucky old bird, you mean heavenly and earthly love. Heavenly love would be utterly beautiful, but we are men, and, precisely because we are men, I’ve set my mind on being a complete and full-fledged man.”
In Jung’s response to the Raven I interpret a notion of love that does not heed the reality of Psyche—that is, the reality of Imagination as the metaxic bond between divinity and phenomenal things. Nor does he fully heed her livingness, her personhood; they are one and the same. Jung’s notion of love, as I interpret it, is not one of capital L—Love, a differentiated daimon named Eros—rather, it is a finite thing, with little to go around. Perhaps, alternatively, he could have considered more keenly the meaning love had for the imaginal figures. Later on, after the Raven has departed, the Bird returns to tell Jung that, “if you love the earth, you are hanged; if you love the sky, you hover.”But still, Jung is hung up on the crown:
I:“And the crown? Solve, the riddle of the crown for me!”
B: “The crown and serpent are opposites, and are one. Did you not see the serpent that crowned the head of the crucified?
I: “What, I don’t understand you.
B: “What words did the crown bring you? ‘Love never ends’—that is the mystery of the crown and the serpent.”
I: “But Salome? What should happen to Salome?”
B: “You see, Salome is what you are. Fly, and she will grow wings.”
Jung’s conversation with the Bird lead to conclude that Jung must release his grip on the heavens strive downward. Weary of necessity and struggle for the immeasurable, he gives his attention exclusively to an earthly form of love, for, as he says, “we are men.” But, so the Bird tells, the words inscribed on the inside of the crown and their meaning are said to unify the serpentine and skyward: “Love never ends,” a meaning that finds reality in Psyche, binding together the infinite and finite in her marriage to Eros. Jung’s elaboration on love following this event renders it unsuitable for life; love, “the inescapable mother of life.” “I speak,” writes Jung, “against the mother who bore me, I separate myself from the bearing womb. I speak no more for the sake of love, but for the sake of life.” His words become even harsher as he goes on: “A man,” says Jung
Needs his mother until his life has developed. Then he separates from her. And so life needs love until it has developed, then it will cut loose from it. The separation of the child from the mother is difficult.
But must the relationship of son and mother be one that ends with separation? And are there not other ways to conceive of Love? In the very last paragraph of Sonu Shamadasani’s facimile edition, Liber Novus ends with someone else claiming motherhood over Jung:
I, your soul, am your mother, who tenderly and frightfully surrounds you, your nourisher and corrupter… I am your body, your shadow, your effectiveness in this world, your manifestation in the world of Gods, your effulgence, your breath, your odor, your magical force. You should call me if you want to live with men, but the one God if you want to rise above the human world to the divine and eternal solitude of the star.
Whether she reveals herself as Mother, Maiden, Crone, or Goddess, her declaration makes clear that she is worthy of love and respect. Love, Eros, I say, is the striving behind the “I;” its scarlet color, another lumen natura. Jung’s struggle to understand the unifying meaning of the words “love never ends” reveals how our notions of the daimon determine our experience of the world. If, as Diotima might insist, love’s true nature is held as divine, we may find ourselves crucified by necessity and cut off from others. On the other hand, if love is in short supply—earthbound—upside down we shall go! Embracing the between of these opposing directions in the meaning of “love never ends” takes Imagination. And indeed, it is She, Psyche, through whom Eros achieves his rhythmic momentum!
The degradation of Imagination into the merely “imaginary” destroys the metaxic bond that Eros as Psyche’s courtier makes possible. The meaning of their marriage not only suggests an ethic for encountering beings of the imaginal realm, but an ethic for the sensible world too. Meaning and value are not simply nominal, but are conveyed from the divine through Imagination: the ecology of our planet is therefore saturated with holy worth. All our claims to coherent knowledge depend on Psyche, for Imagination is what grounds our knowing in a shared world. What could be a proper expression of gratitude for these weighty gifts? As Tarnas writes,
She asks those who tread the pathways of her realm to give her a gift in return: the gift of remembrance. Please record your experience. Whether it is in song or tale, in painting or poetry, or in the quiet memories that you share with a loved one.
Thanks to Jung, we know a method for making contact, but through her courtier, we have learned the proper virtue through which to approach it. Why is The Red Book, red? “Open your heart,” he says, and you shall understand.
Corbin, Henry. Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal. Pdf. Golgonooza Press, 1976.
Plato.The Symposium of Plato. Edited by Gill, Christopher. England: Penguin Books, 1999
Hillman, James, and Sonu Shamdasani. Lament of the Dead: Psychology after Jung’s Red Book.New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
Jung, Carl G., and Joan Chodorow. Jung on Active Imagination. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1997.
Jung, C. G., and Sonu Shamdasani. The Red Book = Liber Novus: A Readers Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.
Tarnas, S. Becca. “The Back of Beyond: The Red Books of C. G. Jung and J. R. R. Tolkien” diss. 2018.
C.G. Jung and Sonu Shamdasani, The Red Book = Liber Novus: A Readers Edition. (W. W. Norton, 2012), 95.
Shamdasani, The Red Book, 122.
Becca S. Tarnas , “The Back of Beyond: The Red Books of C. G. Jung and J. R. R. Tolkien, diss. (2018),9.
Shamdasani, The Red Book, 3.
Shamdasani, The Red Book, 2.
Shamdasani, The Red Book, 15.
Jung, The Red Book, 235, footnote 57.
Shamdasani, The Red Book, 29.
Shamdasani, The Red Book, 13.
Shamdasani, The Red Book, 18.
Shamdasani, The Red Book, 28-29.
James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead: Psychology after Jung’s Red Book. (W. W. Norton & Company, 2013), 52.
Hillman and Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead, 48.
Hillman and Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead, 45.
Hillman and Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead, 54.
Hillman and Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead, 56.
Hillman and Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead, 60.
Hillman and Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead, 62.
Hillman and Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead, 191.
The first part of this quotation comes from the poet W. H. Auden.
Hillman and Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead, 201.
Hillman and Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead, 190.
Hillman and Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead, 23.
From lecture 8 of a course Tarnas taught titled, “Imaginal Ways of Knowing.”
Tarnas, “The Back of Beyond: The Red Books of C. G. Jung and J. R. R. Tolkien, 135.
Tarnas, “The Back of Beyond: The Red Books of C. G. Jung and J. R. R. Tolkien, 126.
Henry Corbin, Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal. (Golgonooza Press, 1976), 5.
Corbin, Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal, my italics on “place,” 8.
Corbin, Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal, my italics on “place,” 7.
Tarnas, “The Back of Beyond: The Red Books of C. G. Jung and J. R. R. Tolkien, 31.
Tarnas, “The Back of Beyond: The Red Books of C. G. Jung and J. R. R. Tolkien, 10.
Tarnas, “The Back of Beyond: The Red Books of C. G. Jung and J. R. R. Tolkien, 170.
From lecture 8 of a course Tarnas taught titled, “Imaginal Ways of Knowing.”
Jung, The Red Book, 579.
Jung, The Red Book, 563.
Jung, The Red Book, italics of “it” are mine, 571.
Christopher Gill, The Symposium of Plato. (Penguin Books, 1999), 39.
Gill, The Symposium of Plato, 43.
Gill, The Symposium of Plato, 49.
Jung, The Red Book, 563.
C.G. Jung and Joan Chodorow, Jung on Active Imagination. (Princeton Univ. Press, 1997), 56.
Jung. On Active Imagination, 165.
Jung. On Active Imagination, 148.
Shamdasani, The Red Book, 48.
Hillman and Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead, 114.
Tarnas, “The Back of Beyond: The Red Books of C. G. Jung and J. R. R. Tolkien, 332.
From lecture 8 of a course Tarnas taught titled, “Imaginal Ways of Knowing.”
Tarnas, “The Back of Beyond: The Red Books of C. G. Jung and J. R. R. Tolkien, 338.
Jung, The Red Book, 436.
Jung, The Red Book, 439.
Jung, The Red Book, 440.
Jung, The Red Book, 431.
Jung, The Red Book, 443.
Jung, The Red Book, 444.
Jung, The Red Book, 446.
Jung, The Red Book, 446.
Jung, The Red Book, 582.
Tarnas, “The Back of Beyond: The Red Books of C. G. Jung and J. R. R. Tolkien, 340.
 Jung, The Red Book, 448.
You set me free by loving me, by re-membering our mutual majesty in The Rootbed before Time. Mary Wollstonecraft—writer; philosopher; and activist—reminds those of her era, and posterity still today, of our divinely stemming rights to grow in virtue and blossom in truebeauty, no matter our sex. In her revolutionary 18thcentury text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft argues with conviction for the emancipation of women from the life-stunting-life-sentence they are enculturated to perform from birth. The role and nature of love is central to Wollstonecraft’s critique, but its meaning is ambiguous by the varied way she employs the word. In this essay I sift through the guises of love in her words as an effort to make distinctions, thereby amplifying the meaning of true love in its relation to freedom as comportment to the divine.
Wollstonecraft’s entire argument for the emancipation of women derives its force from their status as human beingswith the self-same capacity to develop moral virtue as their male counterparts. In her estimation, culture has nipped this universal, inborn potential of women in the bud: “Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”The form of beauty Wollstonecraft references is more a perversion than a semblance of truth, for it renders women “in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”The only form of love such a degraded state would inspire from others is a paltry one—a sister to pity.In exchange for this kind of socialization, Wollstonecraft offers her own ideal:
The most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart…to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason.
The actualization of one’s virtue—whether male or female—lies here in the cultivation of both the animal and divine aspects of our being, what makes us human. In protest to those who would bind her to a fate wholly determined by her body, Wollstonecraft invokes the “immortal soul,”
Not restrained by mechanical laws and struggling to free itself from the shackles of matter, [the soul] contributes to, instead of disturbing, the order of creation, when, co-operating with the Father of spirits, it tries to govern itself by the invariable rule that, in a degree, before which our imagination faints, regulates the universe.
To be continuous with the divine Sublime is to partake in it. The sexes may differ in respect to their physicality, but the capacity for virtue is essential to all human beings and transcends the world. This freedom, once won, enjoins the creature to rhyme with creator in the unfolding of nature’s poetry.
Freedom arises for the individual in measure with the conditions that allow her to actualize it. Culture may determine how fully I can live out my virtue, but it ultimately falls on me to recognize my essence in the mirror. But how? “To love God as the fountain of wisdom, goodness, and power appears to be,” writes Wollstonecraft, “the only worship useful to a being who wishes to acquire either virtue or knowledge.”True freedom, for Wollstonecraft, derives from my reverence for God as creator in my reverence for the majesty of my self as created. True freedom as self-respect, as true love. To love oneself is to will one’s independence “as a being who discharges the duties of its station.”Love of others, in truth, must flow from the same wellspring in which I glimpse my own divinity—the other as free; the other whose dignity I celebrate as my own. True love is thus the keystone of the polis. A just society is one that functions like an organism, enculturating “the tendency of all the parts toward a common centre”—namely, personal virtue.
Wollstonecraft’s caricature of the infantilized woman, curated for weakness, is not a rejection of what is female, but a provocation of her inherent power. Wollstonecraft, the sister of true love, sees through charades, enjoining all souls to reclaim their divinity. I hear you, sister! Yet, I wish to draw out the possibility of true love and intimacy, flowered from a bed of friendship. Wollstonecraft’s account of late 18th century romance in Western Europe reports that, as the necessary “course of nature,” “friendship or indifference inevitably succeeds love.”She defines her use of love in this section as “the common passion, in which chance and sensation take place of choice and reason.”Wavering; obsessive; lusty—love here sounds more like infatuation. Elsewhere she writes again of love “subsiding into friendship, or,” with my emphasis on the “or,” “compassionate tenderness.”The latter is the kind of love I seek to amplify in Wollstonecraft’s words as true love, love as perception of and respect for the divine spark in another, while at once forgiving any faults in their finitude as fellow sufferer in the trials of time. Divinity begets a form of beauty visible in all, while finitude finishes peculiar for the eye of the beholder. Love’s excitation of passion and sexuality may waver but need not be thought contrary to virtue. Wollstonecraft’s goad is more toward maturity and self-possession than repression.Indeed, in the mergence of sexual union a truly intense apprehension of one and another’s divine origin may be had.
To amplify the words of Wollstonecraft, for me, means to illuminate what may already be there. The tragedies of her life tell a story of heartbreak and wishful homecoming in suicide attempts. I do not pretend to know whether her misfortunes rendered her jaded in the end. Rather, I lovingly lift her spirit and my chin in gratitude for the utopic visions she could apprehend. Wollstonecraft’s words remain relevant for a just politics and the human pursuit of a virtuous life, especially in our moment of ecological collapse. Her exclamatory lament over the violence that erupted in the French Revolution could well apply today if her moral ontology extended beyond humans. The front lines of crisis are everywhere, and with her I exclaim,
But, when men once see, clear as the light of heaven,—and I hail the glorious day from afar!—that on the general happiness depends their own, reason will give strength to the fluttering wings of passion and men will ‘do unto others, what they wish they should do unto them.’
By the light of heaven, a vision through love as truth, we might re-see the earthly being in mutual continuity with the divine and let our action follow suit. We might!
Wollstonecraft, Mary, and Deidre Shauna Lynch. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, and Contexts Criticism. New York: Norton, 2009.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Contexts Criticism, ed. Desire Shauna Lynch (New York / London,W.W. Norton & Company University Press, 2009), 48.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 12.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 24.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 52.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 50.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 153.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 33.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 35.
Mary Wollstonecraft, from An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution in A Vindication of the Rights of Women: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Contexts Criticism, 266.
“Mommy Mnemosyne. “Mommy Mnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne—Who is Mommy Mnemosyne?” Mnemosyne, Greek Goddess of Memory, mother of the nine Muses—those spirits who inspire our creative expression. I mantra “Mommy Mnemosyne” as a humble gesture in response to the burning questions I came into the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program with. Questions like “Who am I?” “What does it mean to be human?” And “how am I to live?” Questions that burn with considerable intensity in our moment of planetary madness. Confronting the ecological crisis we face today means facing up to the crisis of human consciousness, too—for both stem from a crisis of story. The basic insight of ecology is that all things exist in relationship; the crises we face today spring largely from a form of human consciousness that experiences itself as separatefrom the nonhuman world. To restore our connection to each other and the nonhuman world, we must tell different stories, stories that are vested on a recognition of relationship in respect of difference—what I call creative remembrance. The muses may inspire the songs of our lives, but it is Mnemosyne from whom they respire and to whom we all must pay tribute. In what follows I attempt my own creativeremembrance as an ethical practice of poetry for re-storying in myself and others a felt participation in the whole of cosmic ecology.
“My fists in my pockets / sleepless I’m walking / towards all that I don’t know.”I am sixteen when I hear the preceding lyrics for the first time, lyrics which begin a song titled “Reunited” by the synthpop band Fan Death. As the song goes on, its subject—though uncanny—sweeps over my body like a memory: “This is a coin for the well,” the vocalists sing, “I wish my wrongs were righted, just want be reunited. I had to face (pace) the world and go from blind to sighted for us to be reunited.” Something deep inside me nods with understanding at the message of the song. I can’t explain what it means or how I know it, but that I do feels indisputable, like a memory. A reunion? I’ve got goosebumps! How could this be? The lyrics of “Reunited” resonate—for me—with a universal tenor that renders the song into a form of “poetry” with all the majesty that the Romantic poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley affords the word in his Promethean essay, “A Defense of Poetry.” “Poetry, in a general sense,” writes Shelley, “may be defined to be ‘the expression of the imagination’:and poetry is connate with the origin of man.”And what, Sir Shelley, is it the nature of the imagination to express? Well, as the “principle of synthesis,” Shelley replies, the imagination
has for its objects those forms which are common to universal nature and existence itself…[whereas] reason is the enumeration of things already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.
Imagination for Shelley is therefore the underlying dynamismthat constitutes the perceiver and the perceived. In the same vein, reason—as Shelley has it—is that through which consciousness is able to differentiate itself from its percepts. As the prime expression of imagination, poetry is thus the means of imaginatively apprehending and evoking the underlying relationship that constitutes the “similitudes of things.” From this perspective, the uncanny familiarity that characterized my initial (and present) experience of the song “Reunited” speaks to its status as a poem for its power to evoke the relational rhythm which undulates through the cosmos from the Mother of all things—a creativeremembrance. Mnemosyne (the Greek Goddess of memory) was the mother of the nine muses after all.
Unfortunately, Shelley’s Promethean championship of poetry leads him to elevate what he calls “poetry in a more restricted sense,” or what most conventionally understand poetry to be (i.e. arrangements of human language in meter), above his generalized conception of it. Rather than perpetuate anthropocentric notions of poetry, I depart from Shelley here by leveling metered poetry with poetry in general as poesis, what in Greek originally meant the creationof novelty. Poetry in general naturalizes meaning, bridging the gap between nature and culture. That this is indeed the case is evident in Shelley’s description of human nature, a description that is essentially relational (ecological!):
Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre, which move it by their motion to an ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them. It is as if the lyre could accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them . . . 
To be fully human is to adjust oneself as instrument so as to harmonize with “that which strikes” the notes of inspiration. Remarkably, this potential to attune is one that Shelley postulates for all sentient beings, a potential that is vested on the “principle” of imagination as the foundation of relationship. “To be a poet,” writes Shelley “is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression.”To be a poet, therefore, is to comport oneself to the larger rhythms of ecological being and rhyme along with them. Human beings, then, are not the only poets, and in light of the ecological crisis we would do well to heed the singing action of earth’s nonhuman denizens. Just as sunflowers follow the light, dancing through life in echoes of their origin, so too might human poeisis strike a chord of remembrance in songs of storied anamnesis. As the vocalists of Fan Death sing, “I had to face the world to go from blind to sighted for us to be reunited.” Mommy Mnemosyne is calling!
Creative remembrance begins with Mnemosyne as memory and ends with the Muses in fresh expressions of poetry. Examples of it may resemble what is conventionally understand as poetry, but put simply, creative remembrance refers to a way of life—the path of beauty. The path is tread by attuning to the beautiful, what Shelley identifies as the “highest pleasure” derived from the partial apprehension of a rhythmic order underlying experience. “Taste” is the faculty through which one might discern and through expression approximate to beauty’s apprehension. “Those in whom it exists in excess,” writes Shelley, “are poets… and the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds, communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community.”The former describes the process whereby a sensitive individual conveys to others in her social group a felt sense of beauty in the aesthetically ordered cosmos which is then mimicked and circulated, leading to an attunement of the entire group with the cosmic wavelength. Yet, because the rhythm continues to undulate, the remembrance must continually renew its expression—lest it stultify into the dead letter. “Their language,” writes Shelley, speaking of poetry here in the restricted sense, “is vitally metaphorical;”
that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.
Just as Mnemosyne gives birth to the Muses, remembrance of the divine in beauty as its ordered footprint requires an ongoing act of creative retranslation as it transforms through time. Maintaining that relationship for the sake of fresh apprehension is crucial for human social organization and cooperation with the larger nonhuman community of cosmic ecology. As Carl Gustav Jung famously recorded in his mythopoetic work, Liber Novus, “to give birth to the ancient in a new time is creation…The task is to give birth to the old in a new time.”
It has become clear that the apprehension of beauty requires an ongoing practice of sensitivity and translation, but the how of all this remains unclear. How does one practice a life of poetry? “Poetry,” writes Shelley, “is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will.”Rather, as the prime expression of imagination, poetry’s inspiration is more a gift than anything else, for it depends upon the. underlying relationship between the perceiver and perceived. “It [poetry] subdues to union under its light yoke all irreconcilable things… strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its forms.”“My fists in my pockets / sleepless I’m walking / towards all that I don’t know.”“Poetry,” Shelley declares, “defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions.”“I had to face (pace) the world,” sing the vocalists, “and go from blind to sighted / For us to be reunited now / I’m seeking a flame that / Will parch out the heavy / Uncharted waters on my heart / And I’m collecting memories / As reward for my melancholy.”“It reproduces,” insists Shelley, “the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”I alternate the lyrics of Fan Death’s “Reunited” with Shelley’s philosophy of poetry to amplify my insistence that the song and its impact on me amounts to an experience of grace afforded by its poetic power to “subdue to union… all irreconcilable things,” what I am here calling creative remembrance. Though I may—as a sentient being—have the capacity to cultivate myself enough to receive this gift, its givenness transcends my agency. “My” being is therefore fundamentally ecstatic. To realize this is to remember who I am, a memory of communion I must constantly renew in the ongoing transformations of time. Mnemosyne keeps her daughters close.
Because creative remembrance as a practice of self-and-world reunion is an art of time, its primary form is story—for how else can a life be recounted and understood? Shelley’s elevation of poetry in a restricted sense leads him to rank it above story, but in my reading his general use of the former renders the hierarchy untenable. Herein lies the reason for my use of the phrase “creative remembrance,” a phrase which I hope conveys the rhythmic integration of whole with part that characterizes poetry as an expression of the imagination. When Shelley insists that “poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted,” he speaks to the aforementioned integration, a formal quality that he says is not present in story as “a catalogue of detached facts.”Perhaps the reader will side with me in dismissing Shelley’s devaluation on the premise of experience: good stories do fulfill this function, for what make them goodis typically their universal resonance expressed in a particularity that connects us with the subject despite our differences. Indeed, it is in the province of narrative as drama that Shelley locates the highest expression of imagination in its power to cultivate the moral virtue that lies dormant in all human beings. The stage presents a synthesis of poetic arts and performs life aspoetry:
The tragedies of the Athenian poets are mirrors in which the spectator beholds himself, under a thin disguise of circumstance, stripped of all but that ideal perfection and energy which everyone feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires, and would become.
Spectators are then thrust back into a mundane revivified by poetry’s power of formal integration as creative remembrance, making possible the imaginative reunion of life as “a detached catalogue of facts” with the meaningful life of the whole. The former amounts to life lived as poetry, dancing through time along the path of beauty. Shelley’s emphasis on the dramatic transmission of poetry for moral formation underscores the performativity of a life storied in beauty.
Such a vision of life contrasts sharply with human existence as it is predominantly storied today. Reason, as a derivative of the underlying, relational activity of imagination, has won out in appearance as the more primary faculty for its success in mechanistic science and technological innovation. Reason thinks it’s the realest! To generalize, a Cartesian-Newtonian story of dead matter bifurcated from the exceptional human psyche has reigned supreme over the last few centuries. The consequences are manifold, but told simply, the narrative paints a bleak picture of human subjectivity alienated from a world in which it naïvely makes pretense to a meaningful life:
The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave. To what but a cultivation of the mechanical arts in a degree disproportioned to the presence of the creative faculty, which is the basis of all knowledge, is to be attributed the abuse of all invention for abridging and combining labor, to the exasperation of the inequality of mankind?
Without imagination, there can be no real self-knowledge of what it means to be human; the underlying relationship between mind and nature has been forgotten. The loss of that relationship ripples out in division after division until we become a species at war with itself; a psyche at war with itself. Yet, in our moment there is hope for remembrance as human civilization comes to gripswith the ecological crisis. In a reversal of human reason’s ascent, decades of scientific evidence pointing to an anthropogenic acceleration of climate change provide a clear corrective to the mainstream story of nature versus culture. Instead, neologisms like Donna Haraway’s “naturecultures” characterize what seems to be an awakening paradigm of creativity and relationship.
Recent discoveries in microbiology and quantum physics reveal a more unpredictable and responsive universe than mainstream science has hitherto been willing to admit. In her article titled “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency,” Serpil Oppermann relates these discoveries—discoveries which imply the coconstitution of matter and meaning—to the burgeoning field of material ecocriticism. The latter concerns itself with the material-semiotic, or the expressive creativity undulating through matter reconceived as lively.
“Everything in the physical environment,” writes Oppermann, “enacts a complex dynamic between social subjects and material processes not reducible to a subject-object binary. Although the human agency is radically different from material agency, they significantly entail each other in an intersubjective way”Oppermann’s construal of material ecocriticism resonates with Shelley’s poetic philosophy of imagination as the underlying dynamism uniting all things. Indeed, in the shift from bifurcation to a dynamic vision of ecology, relationship becomes fundamental; and “on this fusion of horizons, we find creative materiality encoded in a collective poetryof life.”To declare human life poetry itself amounts to a truism in this paradigm of “vibrant matter,” and so too its expression in story:
With its creative energy, matter emerges in meaningfully articulate forms of becoming that can be interpreted as storied matter…a nonanthropocentric conceptualization of materiality that acknowledges a creative disclosing of processes where materiality projects a lively impetus… For material ecocriticism, the creative becoming is the storied world…filled with narrative agencies that restore the world’s immanent capacity of enchantment and creativity.
Photons perform according to how we measure them; smoke stories the sky with omens of forest fire; bacteria speak to each other in chemical symbols. “This creativity can be interpreted as a form of narrative transmitted through the interchanges of organic and inorganic matter, the continuity of human and nonhuman forces, and the interplay of bodily natures, all forming active composites.”Nature turns out to be a book that we can read and be read in ourselves.
Oppermann identifies the meaningfulness of matter as its claim to “narrative agency,” a concept that troubles bygone dualisms of absurdist human freedom defiant of its otherwise determined universe. “Narrative agency, writes Oppermann, “is the world’s reenchanting property,”
characteristic not only of biological organisms…but also of the most elementary physical units. Different from personification, which attributes human traits to objects or ideas, narrative agency does not purport to enhance human qualities in fictive or material domains; rather, it denotes the vitality, autonomy, agency, and other signs that designate an expressive dimension in nonhuman entities…Therefore, narrative agency can be defined as a nonlinguistic performance of matter manifesting itself often in expressive collectives.
Shakespeare’s famous line, “All the world’s a stage,” no longer makes sense in the paradigm espoused by material ecocriticism.The world is not a static platform upon which human dramas unfold but is instead an active player shaping the story itself. Though there may be some aspects of Shelley’s philosophy to discard (e.g. the anthropocentric elevation of linguistic poetry), his overall scheme already presents a creative world of rhythm that resonates with the concept of narrative agency and instructs human participation in it. “In the youth of the world,” writes Shelley, “men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order.”The song of the world speaks inside me like the phantom sensation of ocean waves I feel after a day at the beach. From the very beginning it is nonhuman nature that inspires and guides the human expression of poetry toward the blossoming of virtue. “Even in the infancy of society,” Shelley continues, human beings “observe a certain order in their words and actions, distinct from that of the objects and the impressions represented by them, all expression being subject to the laws of that from which it proceeds.”Thus, the formation of human culture arises in conversation with agencies of the local ecology which are ultimately continuous with the life of the whole cosmos. It is only once the human reasoning capacity begins to forget its dependence on imagination that the bifurcation of mind and nature can happen. How might we help to undo the separation? “This world of coconstituted beings,” writes Oppermann, “necessitates a different ethical stance, one that implies obligations for the world.”Poetry as I have construed it in this essay is a relational art aimed at evoking and invoking in others an attunement with matter’s aesthetic order (rhythm), what we might also call its underlying narrative power. Therefore, “telling stories and reading the storied world are means of understanding the creative experience that characterizes both humans and nonhuman natures.”The former is a practice of creative remembrance as poetic anamnesis, a recollection of the part we play in the story of cosmic ecology. Because stories of separation have been circulating through human civilization for a while, practicing creative remembrance foremost “means remaking our cultural codes and changing our basic conceptual structures so that we become more sensitive to the radical liveliness of the world.”
I decided to apply to the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program after a harrowing experience in the Amazon jungle three years ago that left me with a felt sense of the ethical stance Opperman invokes. Headfirst, I dive into a two-week Ayahuasca retreat under the spell of messianic inflation. I am on a quest to heal all my wounds andconduct preliminary research for a Fulbright project on ayahuasca tourism that will change the world—neither of which happen. Instead, my hubris is brought down to humus in a humiliating bout of breath that obliterates my buffered self. I’ve never appreciated ego more than during these moments in which I can’t discern voluntary respiration from involuntary, inside from outside, me from we, and so seek to control my experience for fear of death. Hyperventilation, tachycardia, and imminent doom punctuate my life regularly afterwards. I can’t notice my breath without freaking out. Mortality is not something I can forget now. The best medicine for bouts like these is prostration outdoors, my head in the dirt and fingers clutching at the grass. I submit to What is Greater than I and am overwhelmed with gratitude for one more day. The mundane world of even-breath sparkles anew for me. Suffering transfigures my perception of other beings and digs a deeper well for my compassion. The ethical stance Oppermann calls us to—an ethic of interdependence—is one that isn’t always obvious, but is something I have had vivid (and terrifying) apphrension of.
I leave Peru and arrive in California a bit jaded, disillusioned with the hubbub of psychedelic panaceas. It ain’t all crystals and rainbows and healing anacondas of love and barfing bliss. No, I know better. Despite my cynicism, the breathing trouble eventually calms down into an even rhythm. My studies in PCC help me to contextualize my experience as a spiritual emergence(y?); integration happens gradually as I share my experience with my peers and professors. I begin to reframe my experience as a profound gift, a confrontation with the existential truth of ecological being. To act with myself at the center, conforming the world to my will, no longer feels tenable—for now I am sure that who I am is more than just me. To keep this kind of awareness present is an act of creative remembrance, an ethical disposition that echoes Catherine Keller’s assertions about action in a world post-separation:
What makes action ethical will not then be the imposition of a law or application of a code, however uprightly progressive. It will be the self-implication of the agent in the act itself. The ethical action requires an actualization of ethos as attention to the sociality, human and not human, that constitutes you. Doing unto others what you would want them, under comparable circumstances, to do to you, lacks deontological or legal purity. For in its cultivation it does not deny or master the self’s desire. It widens it.
Creative remembrance is like the Golden Rule, the first lesson Mommy Mnemosyne imparts upon her nine inspired daughters. Remembering the whole in any given moment means remembering that what I do unto you (or anything for that matter), I do unto myself. Karma inheres in the unfolding storybook of matter at every creative juncture of action.
Throughout this essay I refer to creative remembrance as a “performance,” a term which carries over from Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity into Catherine Keller’s gesture toward an ethics of interdependence. “She [Butler] has us question a style of subjectivity,” explains Keller, “repeated as though it is the essential core of a particular subject and thus concealing repetition itself.”Butler’s queer theory originally begins with a challenge to gender essentialism, but eventually zooms out to question the ontological presuppositions of a certain style (story?!) of subjectivity—namely, of self-and-world separation. To remember the whole in our self-conception is an act, an intentional cultivation of a certain style of subjectivity, and simultaneously an ethic of interdependence:
We compose ourselves, nurtured or degraded by our relations, indeed by whole systems, families, groups, and institutions of relations, as best we can. And however well or ill sustained I am by my world, no “I”—albeit perishing—is a mere function of its environment. And, in ways never fully predictable, that social world will be affected—if only in a minor fold, a hidden nuance—by each momentary act of self-composition. Still, from the perspective of any relational thinking, the relationality does not become ethical unless in some way acknowledged. With whatever stylized repetitions we perform ourselves, our sex/genders, our ethnicities and economies and species, we may veil or reveal our interdependence.
Creative remembrance is therefore an ongoing performance of revelation through which we intentionally story our lives in tribute (acknowledgement) to the underlying relationships that constitutes self and other. My battle with breath taught me how destabilizing realizing one’s interdependence with others can be. What we think is private turns out to be public in what may rightly be called an invasion of the self—the self’s undoing. The meshwork of ecological being is stupefying; where do “I” begin and end? “Relation,” writes Keller,
is appearing as a tie or fiber in a network whose edges fade not into a void but into unknowability. To come undone is to come into question—come unknown, “blinded,” even to ourselves. But the nonknowing that at that moment displaces a cozy core of “self” marks not only identity loss but the enlivening glimpse of an alternative. The ties of relation form the potentiality that offers itself as a gift amidst the very losses relations themselves repeatedly inflict.
Exchanging my “cozy core of self” for “nonknowing” is the wound of realization, one which dulls over time into a humility that remembers its roots in the unspeakable. Bearing the burden of mystery is part of the brunt of being fully human in the performance of creative remembrance. But as Keller points out, something is gained in loss, and that is the gift of novelty: “Far from being further dissipated by a widened sociality and paralyzed by its implicate undefinablities,” writes Keller, “the subject mindful of its unknowing minds the world afresh.”Keller’s insistence on the gift of fresh vision resonates with my gratitude for the givenness of life upon. It’s no surprise that so many of the world’s spiritual traditions encourage contemplative practices of breath—for what could be a closer reminder of our interdependence with the life of the whole than our reliance upon oxygen?
To speak of our reliance upon oxygen is to invoke our ancient cyanobacterial ancestors who catalyzed what is called the Great Oxygenation Event over one to three billion years ago. Because of them we are. The existence of homo sapiens today owes itself to more than just cyanobacteria though. Where would humanity be without our historical collaborations with (and exploitations of) horses, corn, penicillin, or conifer trees? These are just a few of the obvious members of the earth community that we’ve evolved alongside with over the centuries, but given that our planet is an entire system of relationships, our livelihoods have in truth always been bound up with species as far away as the opposite end of the globe. Yet, because climate change and the globe itself are hyperobjects—entities so vast we can only conceive of them abstractly—it’s hard to feel any genuine connection to species that seem remote from us. Despite how difficult it may be, an ethics of interdependence demands that we muster enough imagination to try. What is the appropriate response to the growing number of species who are vanishing from the earth forever? Meditating on her grief for marginalized peoples whose rights to personhood have been denied reality by their oppressive culture, Butler describes how collective grief typically “furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order, and it does this first of all by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility.”To mourn the lives of human beings whose personhood was stripped in life for defying conventions of gender and sexual expression is to perform an ethics of interdependence in responsibility to the human other. The same goes for nonhuman beings, species we are losing f o r e v e r as a result of a style of subjectivity that only considers their instrumental value. “Why,” asks Keller,
would not the restoration of interdependence widen and enrich both the process of grieving and the sources of survival, comfort, and renewal? Moreover, the singularities of loss are not just human. An ethics of interdependence opens into the lives of untold human populations without then drawing the line at nonhumans. We may grieve them singly or as whole environments; and they also grieve.
There is perhaps no better way of acknowledging our coconstiution with the nonhuman world than to grieve the members who vanish from our planet life daily. There are only two female white rhinos left in the world. What would it mean for us if both were to pass away before having children? Who would we be without birdsong and cricket chirps and fireflies? To grieve is nonhumans is to acknowledge them as our kin, and in so doing, widen the body politic to the body of the Earth.
Once we acknowledge our grief for the world and let the feelings flow, the imperative to act in accordance to an ethic of interdependence becomes obvious. Yet, today we are so mired in systems of non/human oppression and exploitation that conceiving of a way to act for the benefit of all seems impossible—and it is. The guilt may be crippling, leading us to dissociate out of feelings of powerlessness. How do we dismantle a hyperobject like the ecological crisis? In this world of narrative agency from which our meager power to act derives, there are no quick fixes; no clear answers; no hands clean of the another’s suffering. Even so, there is hope—but we must throw out the scripts that would story our lives in separation. In her essay on the same subject, ecocritic Tessa Shewry helps me understand what that means: “To hope,” writes Shewry “is to engage in a complex communal life with multiple, contradictory implications at once.”Shewry’s understanding of hope reveals and instructs the awareness of a sensibility awake to ecological its enmeshment. I find Shewry’s take a helpful corrective for my personal understanding of hope conditioned by a belief in certainties. Instead of hoping as a clinging to visions of “should-be,” “to hope is to sparkle with potential…to veer away from optimism if the latter implies confidence in achieve a certain goal, assumes the rectitude of that goal, and insists on a future that we could control.”Instead, to hope is to remain painfully present “in an intimate, embodied experience of moving into an unknown future.”Storied this way, hope becomes tantamount to what I have here been calling creative remembrance, the recollection of our ecological embeddedness in the life of the whole—a transfiguration of our lives into poetry. How to create a life in wake of the Anthropocene? “Remember,” whispers the Muse into my ear. Remember: “Mommy Mnemosyne. “MommyMnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne—Who is Mommy Mnemosyne?”
Jung, C. G., and Sonu Shamdasani. The Red Book = Liber Novus: A Readers Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.
Keller, Catherine. Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. New York: Colombia University Press, 2015.
Opaine, Dandilion Wind (Fan Death), “Reunited” from “Womb of Dreams,” Toronto: Last Gang Records, 2010.
Oppermann, Serpil. “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency.” In Material Ecocriticism, edited by Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino, 21-36. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014.
Shakespeare, William, from “As You Like It,” Website. May 6, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56966/speech-all-the-worlds-a-stage.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf.
Shewry, Teresa. “Hope.” In Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, edited by Jeremy Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, 455-468. Minneapolis, MI: University of Minneapolis Press, 2017.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf, 1.
Ibid., emphasis mine.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.
Ibid., my emphasis.
C.G. Jung and Sonu Shamdasani, The Red Book = Liber Novus: A Readers Edition. (W. W. Norton, 2012), 311.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 17.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 18.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 18.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 18.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 4-5.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 8.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 16.
Serpil Oppermann, “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency,” in Material Ecocriticism, ed. by Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 27.
Oppermann, From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency,” 34.
Ibid., my emphasis.
William Shakespeare, from “As You Like It,” Website. May 6, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56966/speech-all-the-worlds-a-stage.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.
Catherine Keller, Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. (New York: Colombia University Press, 2015), 218.
Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 288.
Teresa Shewry, “Hope,” in Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking,ed. by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2017), 455.
Shewry, “Hope,” 464.
Be he more a realist in his cynicism than she with her fingers crossed in hope? Ney, I say! In this essay I champion the moral importance of fairy-stories for the cultivation of ecological virtue in human beings. The value of fairy-stories for our time of uncertainty figures especially in their facility to condition those reared with them into hopeful creatures. By hope I mean that disposition of humility which admits miraculous possibilities of otherwise—possibilities, perhaps, of eucatastrophe. The latter is a term which the philologist and fantasist J. R. R. Tolkien coined to refer to the happy turn of events at the end of a tale that constitutes a proper fairy-story. Ecological virtue, I suggest, consists in a practice of eucatastrophic thinking and what John Keats’ called negative capability for an attunement to the rhythm of being. Both spring from love as “a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.”In what follows I argue that hope as an openness to the possibility of happy catastrophe is not merely wishful thinking or escapism, but is—in a deeper sense—a loving act of imagination for the welfare of the whole. The moral import of fairy-stories will become clear as a result of my argument, underscoring their importance for human cultures today who seek to engage the ecological crisis motivated by more than just fear.
“To hope,” writes the ecotheorist Tessa Shewry, “is to engage in a complex communal life with multiple, contradictory implications at once.”No matter how clean our footprint is, we cannot escape participating (however indirectly) in the suffering of others—yet still we must act. Shewry’s understanding of hope reveals and instructs the imagination of one who is awake to their enmeshment in earthly ecology. But alas, hope is not a disposition that is so easy to come by. Fear has a much more familiar face. That this is so is evident in the mainstream discourse on the threats of climate change, or else we are subject to naïve technofix assertions as when manifest destiny extends to Mars. I have heard echoed over and over that it is easier for people today to imagine the end of the world rather than the end of the capitalist machine that is actively destroying it. How could this be? Why are we so wanting in hopeful imaginaries of otherwise? The poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley might answer by pointing to “the extinction of the poetical principle” in popular society.The latter, says Shelley, is “connected with the progress of despotism and superstition,” developments in which human beings are not cultivated for freedom, but pitted against themselves and each other.Consumer choice masquerades as freedom in our time, but is in reality a byproduct of today’s cultural inundation with the manipulative magic of advertisement. Though for different reasons, Shelley’s description of the dark ages in his essay “A Defense of Poetry” bears a resemblance to our time in which human vices, rather than virtues, are encouraged:
Men had become insensible and selfish: their own will had become feeble, and yet they were its slaves, and thence the slaves of the will of others: lust, fear, avarice, cruelty, and fraud, characterized a race amongst whom no one was to be found capable of creating in form, language, or institution.
The poetical faculty Shelley alludes to requires a higher kind of freedom, one that is inherently ecological—for it locates its agency beyond the narrow confines of the buffered self. “Poetry,” writes Shelley, “is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will… The mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.”This higher freedom through which a being participates imaginatively in the life of the whole is what I call here inspired agency. For Shelley, the expression of such agency is poetry in general, and though one might argue that his elevation of poetry in a conventional sense (i.e. language arranged in meter) hints at his personal inflation, his overall philosophy emphasizes humility as the disposition through which poetry inspires. Like the smoldering coal, my receptivity to the swirling winds of ecological being allow them to pass through “me,” fanning the flames of imagination into visions of hopeful alternatives to capitalist catastrophes.
That Shelley, along with others before and after him, could ascend to heights of ego inflation reveals the danger of inspired agency despite its relational underpinnings. Imagination can be wielded for good andevil. It is hope—as I use the term in this essay—through which imagination may rhyme along in good faith with the primary creativity of natura naturans. “In hope,” invoking Shewry again,
we establish, feel, and express a relationship between things of this world (and through this world, the claims of the past) and the future in terms of openness and potential, loosening the hold of imagined futures said to be inevitable already. This is an embodied, unassuming, wordless relationship that is shaped by and at the same time nourishes ideas, or what one hopes for… Establishing a relationship of openness between present and future creates space not only for varied imaginaries of what might come but also for what we do now to enrich the future.
In contrast to the modernist pursuit of certainty and its hegemonies of “should,” Shewry’s construal of hope befits the human of an era like the Anthropocene in which all concepts of human activity must be ecologized. Hope here has much in common with what the poet John Keats sparsely described as “negative capability.” In a letter written to his brothers, Keats describes the latter as the capacity needed for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”Though negative capability may certainly require a willfulsuspension of interpretation, logic, and projection of possible outcomes, it is—as a practice—only half of the equation I insist on in this essay. The other half is in hope as a contemplative act, as eucatastrophic thinking—the caring embrace of what Keats following William Wordsworth called the “burden of Mystery.” To contextualize that burden, I quote at length Keats’ poetic philosophy of life from another letter to fellow poet J. H. Reynolds:
Well—I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me—The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think—We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle—within us—we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man—of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness, and oppression—whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages—We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist—We are now in that state—We feel the ‘burden of the Mystery,’To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote ‘Tintern Abbey’ and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages. Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them.
The Anthropocene is a time of “Mist;” the more we humans realize our enmeshment in the unpredictable feedback loops of earthly ecology, the more we are mystified by the question “what to do about it?” Some answers may be better than others, but none have the privilege of resolute correctness in what Keats calls the Chamber of Maiden-Thought. The latter might be interpreted as the Chamber of sensual experience, through which an individual’s curiosity is awakened and conditioned by the events of life. This Chamber, Keats tells us, has the potential of “convincing one’s nerves” that fear and hopelessness are the most appropriate responses to the sufferings of time—for what purpose can reason make of a world writhing in so much pain? No answer is sufficient. Why should I go on? If the cultivation of ecological virtue is vested on the recognition of relationship as fundamental, then to be virtuous means to realize that “I” am more than just myself. To say this is one thing, but to know it is another: to know oneself as the whole of cosmic ecology is humiliating in the literal sense of “being brought close to earth;” despair bottoms out into compassion for others in what is truly a shared suffering.Ecologized sensibility—if it is true—is necessarily hopeful even as it bears the burden of Mystery because the individual bearing it knows that they are not alone. Hope is the hand we hold as we feel our way through “those dark Passages” of life’s Mansion of Many Apartments. Hope is knowing that we are in this together.
Shelley’s philosophy of poetry is helpful for more than just diagnosing the ills of today. His assertion that corruption is typically keyed with the absence of the “poetical principle” underscores its importance for organizing an ecologically just society. To understand Shelley’s generalized notion of poetry, we must understand what he means by imagination. Shelley designates the latter as that synthetic activity through which we have experience. Imagination is anterior to reason, or the class of mental action which, Shelley writes, “may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another.”Reason is thus figured as the squire of imagination, the deeds of whom are taken back up by the latter “as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to color them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.” Imagination, therefore, is that primary creative activity rhyming the world and our experience into being and, at the same time, is that which we participate in when we rhyme along through the poetry of our lives. After all, “poetry,” in a general sense,” writes Shelley, “may be defined to be ‘the expression of the imagination’: and poetry is connate with the origin of man.”The latter point is crucial for understanding my insistence on the import of fairy-stories for the cultivation of ecological virtue. Poetry, for Shelley, is not apart from the world—rather—it is that through we strive to synchronize with its underlying rhythm. To illustrate this attuning function of poetry, Shelley offers—among others—the example of a child at play:
A child at play by itself will express its delight by its voice and motions; and every inflexion of tone and every gesture will bear exact relation to a corresponding antitype in the pleasurable impressions which awakened it; it will be the reflected image of that impression; and as the lyre trembles and sounds after the wind has died away, so the child seeks, by prolonging in its voice and motions the duration of the effect, to prolong also a consciousness of the cause. In relation to the objects which delight a child these expressions are what poetry is to higher objects.
The “impression” which the child mirrors in play is like the wind strumming through an Aeolian lyre; as actions which aim to prolong “consciousness of the cause,” both examples amount to poetry as expressions which reconcile the individual with the rhythmic life of cosmic imagination.
Whether as language written in meter or a life lived in accordance with earthly rhythms, poetry in general is any expressive activity that performs a reconciliation between the part and the whole—and is, for that reason, ecological (relational). Shelley’s conception provides a way of restoring the bridge between nonhuman nature and human culture, for it is the former which inspires the organization of the latter. “In the youth of the world,” writes Shelley, “men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order.”The closest approximation to that “certain rhythm or order” is what we call beautiful, the experience of which is the highest pleasure, for it is an echo of our origin in divinity. Shelley says those who have the capacity to apprehend the beautiful are poets and have major sway, for their expression “communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community,” allowing the entire group to organize in accord with the beautiful rhythm and in so doing, attune to the song of cosmic ecology.But because cosmic imagination is creative, poetry is never-ending innovation and requires poets to stay on their toes! “If no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized,” Shelley warns us, “language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.”Before the human species began ratiocinating its way into imaginaries of separation, attunement was basic existence. Indeed, as Shelley writes,
in the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression.
Human culture has not always storied itself apart from nonhuman nature; the roots of most words hint at this. But today, as in Shelley’s time, the dominant imaginary does not incline its adherents to experience themselves ecologically. Though all human beings may possess the capacity for poetry, today’s poets are those who for some reason or another are primed to feel through the imaginatively wrought boundaries of the buffered self. Thus, for their negative capability, poets are what we desperately need as we muster the courage to confront the unfolding ecological crisis. I am led to agree with Shelley in his dynamite declaration at the end of his essay: “Poets arethe unacknowledged legislators of the world.”What we need are exemplars of inspired agency!
For Shelley, the apotheosis of poetry happens on stage in drama for its multimedia mimesis of life. “The tragedies of Athenian poets,” insists Shelley,
are as mirrors in which the spectator beholds himself, under a thin disguise of circumstance, stripped of all but that ideal perfection and energy which everyone feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires, and would become. The imagination is enlarged by a sympathy with pains and passions so mighty, that they distend in their conception the capacity of that by which they are conceived… Neither the eye nor the mind can see itself, unless reflected upon that which it resembles. The drama, so long as it continues to express poetry, is as a prismatic and many-sided mirror, which collects the brightest rays of human nature and divides and reproduces them from the simplicity of these elementary forms, and touches them with majesty and beauty, and multiplies all that it reflects, and endows it with the power of propagating its like wherever it may fall.
When drama is at its best it presents a concentrated portrayal of human experience, shining with the “brightest rays of human nature” that then penetrate the audience and awaken those self-same qualities already resident within. Drama has the power to catalyze and cultivate human sensibility, shaping it to perform the values it narrates. In spite of his celebration of drama, Shelley disparages the form of story for its supposed disjunction with the whole:
The one [story] is partial and applies only to a definite period of time, and a certain combination of events which can never again recur; the other is universal, and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature.
Shelley’s disparagement of story is indeed strange if one accepts my extension of his general notion of poetry to individual life itself when it reconciles with the life of the whole. Is not story the means by which we might narrate our lives in wholeness? Moreover, does not every story have the potential to tell itself in such a way as to convey something universal of human experience?
In his defense of story, J. R. R. Tolkien contrasts wildly with Shelley’s celebration of drama, chiding the latter form’s pretense toward expressing the fantastic, which a feat like the reconciliation of the part with the whole certainly is. In his essay titled “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien introduces a similar philosophy of imagination, one that wonderfully introduces more terminological distinctions than Shelley’s affords. Tolkien’s focus in this essay is on “Fantasy,” or that operation “which combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination the derived notions of “unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the domination of observed “fact,” in short of the fantastic.”For Tolkien, the “Primary World” is the expression of the Creator’s “Primary Art,” or the unfolding creativity of cosmic imagination. “Sub-creation” characterizes the activity of those who participate in Creation producing “Secondary Worlds,” the achievement of “which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” or “Secondary Belief.”Specifically, Fantasy is the style of sub-creation characterized by “a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression.”As works of Fantasy, fairy-stories work to restore our astonishment in life by presenting universal human experiences (much like in Shelley’s dramatic concentration of life) under the guise of impossible circumstances. In an effort to reconcile Shelley and Tolkien, we might call fairy-stories a fantastic form ofpoetry. Tolkien describes Fantasy’s awe-inducing power as a power of “recovery,” one that resonates with my insistence on restoring the human relationship to nonhuman nature:
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.
Drama’s reliance on corporeality (performing bodies, costumes, props, stage sets, etc.) limits its ability to revivify perception. Dramatic attempts at Fantasy often fall flat or appear absurd. In Tolkien’s words, “men dressed up as talking animals may achieve buffoonery or mimicry, but they do not achieve Fantasy.”Rather, it is, as Tolkien insists, through words that Fantasy is rendered best, for
fairy-stories deal largely, (or the betters ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover and not her slave.It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.
The power of fairy-stories to revivify the mundane, astonishing habitual perception into wide-eyed amazement with the beauty of nature is clearly important for our time. To cultivate ecological virtue we must recover an experience of the mystery and inherent value of the nonhuman world. The reality of such stories has a deeper valence than any nominalist understanding of language could admit. Though he is at times ambiguous, fairy-stories for Tolkien seem to deal with an actual realm—the realm of Faërie—in which denizens like the elves dwell. Fantasy as a capacity granted to the human being by imagination is in this purview inevitable, as are its sub-creations in which important truths about what it means to be human may be taught by the elves alone:
To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician. Of this desire the elves, in their better (but still perilous) part, are largely made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy—even if the elves are, all the more in so far as they are, only a product of Fantasy itself. That creative desire is only cheated by counterfeits, whether the innocent but clumsy devices of the human dramatist, or the malevolent frauds of the magicians… Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.
By “Enchantment” Tolkien refers to the elven craft of sub-creation in which the Secondary World is experienced with “Primary Belief,” a Fantasy so convincing that it is accepted as reality. At their best, elves demonstrate ideal sub-creation for human beings in what Shelley might call poetry, or the celebration of, reconciliation with, and “shared enrichment” of Creation—“partners in making and delight, not slaves.”
Finally we arrive at the end, the moment in which the harrowing events of a fairy-story take a miraculous turn toward a happy resolution—the eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic trope is not one of mere escapism, nor is it inherently childish. “It does not,” writes Tolkien,
deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief… in such stories when the sudden “turn” comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through. 
That fateful gleam comes through to pierce our hearts with some uncanny truth that somehow makes the “burden of Mystery” lighter. Spellbound by Secondary Belief, our joy hints that the fantastic eucatastrophe may in some way actually
partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth…in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far- off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.
Human sensibility cultivated through a cultural practice of telling fairy-stories might thus be formed to feel through the “dark Passages” of life, candlelit by a hopeful disposition that flickers with eucatastrophic thought. To confront the ecological crisis we must both internalize an identity that exceeds our individuality and indwell a disposition of hope that is itself a loving practice of being ecological. Only when we think eucatastrophically can we muster the courage to press forward in the name of possibilities of otherwise. Rather than a parasite of the earth, let us—raised on heaping plates of fairy-story—be partners with our Creator; let us, as sub-creators, “assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”
Keats, John, from “Selections from Keats’s Letters,” Website. May 22, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69384/selections-from-keatss-letters.
Morton, Timothy.“Deconstruction and / as Ecology,” in Greg Garrard, ed., The Oxford
Handbook of Ecocriticism, 291–304. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. (Page 11 in PDF): file:///C:/Users/aarnoldy/Downloads/Deconstruction_and_as_Ecology.pdf
Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf.
Shewry, Teresa. “Hope.” In Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, edited by Jeremy Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, 455-468. Minneapolis, MI: University of Minneapolis Press, 2017.
Tolkien, J. R. R., “On Fairy Stories.” PDF file. May 22, 2019. http://heritagepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/Tolkien-On-Fairy-Stories-subcreation.pdf
Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf, 6.
Teresa Shewry, “Hope,” in Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, ed. by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2017), 455.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 11.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 17.
Shewry, “Hope,” 458.
John Keats, from “Selections From Keats’ Letters,” Website. May 22, 2019.
John Keats, from “Selections From Keats’ Letters,” Website. May 22, 2019.
Timothy Morton, “Deconstruction and / as Ecology,” in Greg Garrard, ed., The Oxford
Handbook of Ecocriticism (Oxford UP, 2014), 291–304. (Page 11 in PDF): file:///C:/Users/aarnoldy/Downloads/Deconstruction_and_as_Ecology.pdf
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 1.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.
 Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 20, my emphasis.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 8.
Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 5.
J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories.” PDF file. May 22, 2019. http://heritagepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/Tolkien-On-Fairy-Stories-subcreation.pdf, 6.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 5.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 9.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 7.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,”10.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 8.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 13-14.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 14.
Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 15.
This piece was written for a course I took during the fall titled, “A Brief History of Western Thought.” For my midterm assignment I chose to write a manifesto inspired by the life of Lady Anne Conway and her single, yet comprehensive text—The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy.
Manifesto of Pain
“At the end of my suffering there was a door,”and through that door—I declare—is the meaning and worth of our pain. Please, hear me out—for I believe the salvation of our planet depends on it. Smoke fills the San Francisco skyline on a day I expected to be clear and warm. It isn’t until after I begin to feel inflamed and light-headed that I discover what I mistook for a surprise cloud cover is actually the echo of a wildfire screaming through Chico less than 200 miles north. The question, “what’s wrong with me?” is answered as air pollution that invades every respiring creature around. “My” pain zooms out and becomes ecological, becomes our pain. The question reframes: “what’s wrong with us?” 17thcentury philosopher-heroine Lady Anne Conway offers an answer and means of transmutation by indwelling the question itself. Holding her hand, I extend mine to yours so that together we may lean in and gain clarity through compassion.
It is fitting that Rene Descartes, the boogeyman of Western thought, be supplanted by one of his first major critics. Pulling back the tide of modernity, we invoke the voice of the late, great Lady Anne Conway as the siren to usher in an enchanted world view, synthesizing the old with the new. In her singular, yet comprehensive text, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, Conway persuades us to consider a story of body and mind that “out-narrates”such Cartesian plot twists as the hard problem and the gulf between the divine and the worldly. We hold that Conway’s perspective has more semblance with lived experience and we base that belief in pain. As a woman, it is no surprise that Conway would figure in as one of the most persuasive opponents of Cartesianism. Menses does not permit as easy a dissociation of mind from body that men may fall subject to. That Conway suffered from an incapacitating and incurable headache condition only amplified her insightful rebuttal. “If one should say that dead matter has metaphysical truth and goodness, to the extent that every being is true and good,” Conway asks, “what is truth or goodness? For, if it [dead matter] shares nothing of the communicable attributes of God, it will not be true or good, and consequently, will be an utter fiction.”Our declaration inspires from her ontology, a story of a cosmos created by and soaked with the vitality of a living God.
Guided by Conway, we “proceed securely in the middle way of truth concerning the nature of substance,”between the dualism of Descartes and the monism of Spinoza. In her innovation, there are three forms of being: the singular, self-subsistent and immutable infinity of God; the metaxic being of the Messiah, between the immutable and mutable; and the mutable being of Creation. God’s personality includes traits that can and can’t be spoken:
The incommunicable [traits or attributes] are that God is a being subsisting by himself, independent, immutable, absolutely infinite, and most perfect. The communicable attributes are that God is spirit, light, life, that he is good, holy, just, wise, etc. Among these communicable attributes there are none which are not alive and life itself.
Descartes’ dead matter becomes a fiction in Conway’s ontology, “for what attributes or perfections,” she demands to know, “can be assigned to dead matter which are analogous to those in God?”None, we declare. Her world-story makes sense of the perceived dualism of body and soul by recognizing them as different shades along the spectrum of Creation as living Spirit, made in the image of a living God.
With the “hard problem” dismissed as mere fancy, we are freed up to concern ourselves with realproblems: ouch, something hurts; my head, it aches from the wildfire echo suffusing the sky I breathe—what of pain? How could the goodness of God subject me to suffering? Conway, like Christ, is an exemplar of how we fellow sufferers ought to hold our woe. Being mutable, the body of Creation is subject to change; time; decay. As self-subsistent being, God’s infinity holds hercaptive and powerless over our direct salvation, for God can have no real relations. But within each creature is an original shard of perfection, that sliver of broken mirror in my foot goading me toward something more. Besieged by headaches, Conway intensely strove to make sense of and transmute her own suffering. For her, freedom from pain lies in redemption through God’s love, a love that flows simply from the logic of Creation, “for he [God] gave existence, life, and motion to everything and he therefore loves everything and is unable to not love everything.”The drive to cease pain is the “divine law and instinct with which he [God] has endowed all rational creatures so that they will love him.”If we understand goodness, loving God is no strife, for goodness is Conway’s principle reason for love and God is its paragon. Being images of God herself, it is no wonder that God loves us, as love also inspires from similarity. But, one might ask, how is it possible that God could break through perfection to make love real?
As Creation, we know God’s love most intimately through each other. Love between us follows the logic of similarity; though “we include many individuals gathered into subordinate species and distinguished from each other modally,” difference is not essential for us, because
God has made all tribes and troops from one blood…so that they would love one another and would be bound by the same sympathy and would help one another. Thus God has implanted a certain universal sympathy and mutual love into his creatures so that they are members of one body…for whom there is one common Father, namely, God in Christ or the word incarnate…[and] one mother, that unique substance or entity from which all things have come forth.”
Our love for each other is the commonsense of our fundamental unity as one Creation; it awakens us to our origin in God’s goodness, moving us to participate in the immutable through the metaxy of Christ—the first Creature. As the first, Christ the Messiah is the most perfect of all Creatures and can only tend toward greater goodness. For Conway, Christ is the etheric substance joining infinity with time “like a most powerful and efficacious balm, through which all things are preserved from decline and death[;]…in assuming flesh and blood, he sanctified nature so that he could sanctify everything.”
Through Christ the woes of chronic time may be sanctified by the brilliant light of eternity. In Conway’s spectrum of being, sin and suffering are transfigured into ataxia, “or disorderly direction of motion;” in this case, motion away from the goodness of God.My pain is not a final judgement, rather, it is what spells my karmic inheritance in the undulating matrix of matter. The question is less about identity and more about action. In Conway’s example, just as the helmsman steering the ship “is neither author nor cause of the wind; but the wind blowing, he makes either good or bad use of it,” so too are we response-able for recognizing woe as blessing in disguise.Our pain is the key to Heaven on Earth, for, because “torment stimulates the life or spirit existing in everything which suffers…[,] it irrefutably follows that it [the Creature] must return toward the good, and the greater its suffering, the sooner its return and restoration.”
There is a telos in Conway’s story and its motor is pain. Through our response to suffering, Conway declares, “creatures may have the opportunity to attain, through their own efforts, ever greater perfection as instruments of divine wisdom, goodness, and power, which operate in them and with them. For in this the creatures enjoy greater pleasure.”Four hundred years after Conway’s treatise, we find ourselves in the midst of immense Creaturely pain. The threat to Earth’s achievement of complex life forms steepens the longer the human species remains dissociated from feeling the planet. Rather than point fingers at philosophical boogeymen or, on the other hand, pronounce that our species’ rite of passage necessitates the current devastation for realization, we must first open ourselves up to feel the suffering that is in no shortage within and “outside” human civilization. We must feelworld-pain. Hand in hand with Conway, I declare that—until we fully indwell our pain—a vision of divinized otherwise will not come. Will you join me in taking a deep breath of our polluted sky? Is there meaning in the marked brilliance of a wildfire sunrise? The wild iris answers: “at the end of my suffering there was a door. Hear me out: that which you call death, I remember.”
Conway, Anne. Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. Edited by Allison P. Coudert and Taylor Corse, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Glück, Louise. “The Wild Iris.” PoemHunter.com, https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-wild-iris/. Accessed on 9 Nov. 2018.
Quote from Jacob Sherman in class on November 9th, 2018.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, ed. Allison P. Coudert and Taylor Crose (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 46.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 31.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 45.
We use the feminine pronoun in reference to God in order to offset the masculine default in hopes of underscoring the utter androgyny and queerness of such a being.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 47.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 31.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 27.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 58.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 43.
Anne Conway, Anne Conway: The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 66.
Glück, “The Wild Iris.”
This module’s exercise had us direct attention to a particular region of our body with an awareness inspired by the writings of Elsa Gindler and Charlotte Selver, pioneers in the field of somatics.
I’ve seen images of myself, moving and still, that make me cringe. Why are my shoulders slumped forward like that? Re-membering those images, I sink into present-tense and recognize them in my current posture—my shoulders dumped slightly forward as if I am something less than. I straighten up, pulling my shoulders back and lift my head up a little higher. I’ve done this many times throughout my life and each time I feel a hint of pretension. Until I learned of transforming habit and the malleability of character, I took this posture to be inauthentic to me. And yet, I admired it in others. Admiration, stained with a bit of resentment. I wipe that resentment away to break the habit. Pulling my shoulders back takes a weight off the center of my spine. It feels like a posture I could hold for a long time—durable. Lurching forward pinches the center of my shoulder blades. Sometimes I feel a crunchy pop between them when I straighten back out, especially if I hold it for too long. It’s not sustainable. My breathing is shallower here; inhalations can’t reach the bottom of my belly. Each breath in requires the heaving upward of my weight, onto my spine. Exhales are exasperated—an adjective I better understand now. They escape my lips like air released by a cetacean blowhole. When I straighten up, I don’t notice my breath unless I intend to. I feel more like a tree—quietly (and humbly) respirating. Like a tree, but with the reflex of a vigilant dragonfly. “Healthy tension?” I think I need more conscious feelings of this to nod yes. Repeat, repeat.
This semester I’m in a class called “The Body: Experienced, Conceptualized, and Verbalized” with Dr. Don Hanlon Johnson of the Somatic Psychology program at CIIS. Each week we’ve been assigned short essay-exercises related to our readings that are intended help us verbalize experience “in fresh language close to the flesh.”
The first exercise had us verbalize our sensual experience in relation to a particular place:
The blue light from the screen I rest my eyes upon taxes them—they feel heavy. I’d like to close them, tuck them into bed for a nap. But I can’t take a nap today. I stop, close my eyes, and drift back to a memory. The time and space is high noon in June of 2018, walking down a sidewalk in Little Rock, Arkansas. I’m near the Arkansas River; the air is thick with moisture, its temperature seething with the heat of full sun. Today’s high is another record broken and the humidity must be 100%. I love it. I am home—“my” body knows it. It’s the first time I’m aware of knowing home without conceptual interference, a deep knowing that my intellectualism needn’t challenge.
Typing this, I realize I’ve begun to hunch forward—I’m onto to something. Smiling, I feel the warmth from that moment now. It rivals the AC running ridiculously high on the 4th floor of CIIS where I sit typing under fluorescent light. “Why is it always so cold in here?” I often complain. I have to wear a jacket indoors while at work, a fact that feels annoyingly out of step with the so-called integral mission of the university. Feeling the chill in my poorly circulated fingers, I decide to close my eyes and drift back again to that hot summer day back home.
I’m walking to the Root Café to meet a friend for lunch. My sweat doesn’t evaporate, rather, it glistens in little drops that cascade together and collect in the creases of my skin. I stop to pull my shirt off and let the sun kiss my skin. This is what I’ve been looking forward to since planning my trip back from the Bay Area. The thick heat of an Arkansas summer. When I was a teenager, taught not to sweat, I hated the summer atmosphere. Sauna-like, it kept my adolescent pit stains growing. I know better know. This is health, this response of my body. The moisture, opening my pores, makes me feel more continuous with my ecology. Cut grass, ants, squirrels, and the fellow on the street—we’re all swimming in this, together. My heart feels light. I am so happy—I holler it as loud and as deeply as I can, “I am SO happy!” If only it felt like this in Berkeley, I think to myself. And then I remember that record breaking highs continue to spike everywhere. To me, it’s bittersweet to think that, one day, I could feel this on the soil of the new place I’ve begun to call home—a place where my head and heart agree, but where “my” body has yet to catch up. Arkansas—this summer—is still home. When will California be? I wonder to myself. A quiet answer comes as “Time.” My thinking spins out trying to decide whether or not that’s wishful thinking or a deeper intelligence. I decide to wait and see.
In the last two modules of Process and Difference in the Pluriverse we focused on Timothy Morton’s Humankind (2017) and Anne Fairchild Pomeroy’s Marx and Whitehead: Process, Dialectic, and the Critique of Capitalism (2004). During the time that lapsed between them I traveled north of San Francisco to Bell Valley Retreat Center in Mendocino Valley where the 5-day immersive course called “Nature and Eros” was held. The latter was/is co-taught by PCC professor and evolutionary cosmologist, Brian Swimme, along with Kerry Brady, founder of Ecology of Awakening. It was a wonderful context in which to deepen into the ideas we’ve been exploring this semester in Process and Difference, for “Nature and Eros” was posed by our guides as an invitation to let go of our conditioning in the techno-industrial sphere of expectation and ceaseless productivity.
Many people complain about the lack of immediate contact with fellow students and teachers in the online learning format. This is sound, but it is certainly possible to connect with others despite the disjuncture in space-time. We miss the subtext and subtly of presence, but in return we are gifted time to curate more rigorous reflections on the content we entangle with together. To curate, and to absorb the wonderful musing of others. The philosophical tenor of Process and Difference—at once emancipatory and implicating—was one that intrinsically honored each individual perspective in the class and encouraged us to feel like, together, we were all creating something as we entangled our thinking-feeling on the discussion board. Of course, I’m speaking for myself, and though I think my point about the philosophical tenor is true, it is equally true that this particular group made the class what it was.
I’m waxing on this because in the text below you will multiple times run across a certain Julie, a peer of my mine from the course whose insights had such an impact on my thinking. I encourage you to check out her website, Sacred Futures, and tangle yourself in the magical ideas she so inspired me with this semester.
Morton’s writing is electric with mischief and I always love thinking-with tricksters. But—having grown out of shock for shock’s sake—I appreciate mischief more (when the stakes are high) if it’s done with care. Like Julie, I critique Morton for his carelessness. His nonchalant use of the word “consumerism” (at least in the reading we’ve been assigned so far!) is like saying “BOO!” in a really scary way! I can imagine how some sensitive, well-meaning readers might drop Humankind and take off running from such a spooky prospect, such a ghoulish book. Therein, though (in the shimmering, in the flapping of the pages as the wind reads, rushing through it), whispers an alternative way to understand what he means.
Reading Pomeroy in between the two Morton selections led me to ask myself, “What kind of economic model would allow us to treat “objects” (e.g. goods, products, matter in general) concretely?” That is, with reverence—recognizing their spectral quality. Pomeroy is more concerned with misplaced concreteness as it relates to human creativity. She expresses her anthropocentrism clearly when she criticizes capitalism’s misplaced concreteness: “because all ontological being is both physical and conceptual, this [abstracting physical iteration from creative conceptuality in the dialectic sweep] is an abstraction even on the level of ‘things.’ Granted it is not as misplaced an abstraction as it is for the human being.” (Pomeroy, 157)
If we agree to release the correlationist copyright, to turn up the volume on the correlatee such that its appearance has some measure of command over us, and if we accept—in some fashion—Morton’s ontological flattening, then something of the sacred returns to what has hitherto been disparaged as “mere matter.” The problem with Pomeory’s ecological Marxism is that it exceptionalizes the metabolism of species-being human. Marxism can’t fully acknowledge ecology because doing so necessarily means trouble: all symbionts hover between help and harm. Morton wants to stay with the trouble and so he rightly affirms consumerism as the specter of ecology. Why? Because implicit in consumerism is the reality of humankind’s metabolism. This is why he describes rejection of consumerism as “acceptance-in-denial,” for if we are living, we are no doubt consuming, metabolizing Nature as we continue to become. (Morton, 69)
Our well-intentioned reader is, perhaps, hit with dissonance. Here is where my critique comes in: why not use another word?! Page 66 could have been an early (perhaps he overturns it later?) opportunity for Morton to re-name or re-frame consumerism (similar to Haraway with response-ability/responsibility) in a way that directly (rather than obliquely) connects it with our metabolic complicity and the ambiguity that enshrouds it! Those of us who have wandered down the rabbit-hole of “ethical consumption,” hoping we might eventually figure out the most just way to eat, might say “amen” to Morton when he declares that “we are caught in hypocrisy. We can’t get compassion exactly right. Being nice to bunny rabbits means not being nice to bunny rabbit predators.” (Morton, 69) Despite my balking, maybe Morton’s ambiguity about our ambiguous economic existence (organizing according to enjoyment) is part of his method of making sure we get it. I’m happy to hang on throughout the rest of his book for that, but somebody else might not have that kind of faith!
At the last Bioneers conference I sat through an astrological sermon with astro-poet Caroline Casey. As one might expect, she story-told our ecological moment in lieu of the planetary dance, but there was one thing she said that especially stuck with me. It rang in my ears (a tinny sound) as I took in Morton’s avowal of consumerism: “Animism is about manners.” Manners imply a code, a system of cosmic ethics. Revolving around what, though? I liked Haraway’s use of the Navajo word “hózó,” or “right relations,” an aim so general that it needs a process-relational context to give it shape. I’m heartened by what Julie mentions in her post about Morton’s tricky way of inspiring care on behalf of our common home. It’s something one can feel in Morton’s literary effort, I think, if it’s attended to with care. But that takes some effort! Perhaps a little more effort than it would have taken him to re-contextualize consumerism apart from the pathological form it takes in the Capitalist-Rat-Race?! Who knows! Maybe I’m way off!
Monday I returned home from the PCC retreat course (this time held at Bell Valley) led by Brian Swimme and Kerry Brady titled “Nature and Eros.” That “Nature” and “Eros” appear as two distinct ideas was protested by one of my peers as an arbitrary separation. Does Nature not imply Eros? To some it may, but that entirely depends upon who is thinking Nature and their associative context for the word. We can understand the separation as a practical way of communicating to those of us who, though we may endeavor to reach beyond a world view of severance, nonetheless remain constrained by it.
Thus, Morton’s neologism, “The Symbiotic Real,” that undulating, excess of spectrality we vibrate-with. Though I may have re-thought the concept of Nature in a way that more or less resembles Morton’s concept, Promethean neologisms like his help to push bifurcated associations to the periphery. Who knows, maybe his term will even replace “Nature” one day! I find his style of eco-philosophy refreshing. Sensitive and sardonic at once, I think-feel him relating from a place of real insight, the only place wherefrom truly practical wisdom can flow.
Take his notion of Ecoclaustrophobia—the paranoid flipside of Sunny Interconnection—and its truism: “All tactics are hypocritical,” from which he derives the necessity for communism(s) as opposed to a universal communism that would reign over all beings. “Something is always missing from the ethical and political ecological jigsaw,” he tells us, “which means that there can be no top-level political form to rule them all” (Morton, 163). Another great example is Morton’s reframing of violence as “micro-violence(s)” and his re-locating of its causal character, formerly a quality of the indifferent whole (Mother Nature, or The Universe Machine), to the “fragile contingent.” Solidarity means nonhumans always impinge on us, and vice versa.. “Ecological awareness means that in any political grouping something is necessarily excluded,” something is unknown, eaten, stomped upon—“there is a fundamental fragility and inconsistency about any set of political beings.” Solidarity post-severance—“the structural position of wishing it could encompass more [beings]”— is tantamount to feeling compassion (Morton, 179).
But how do we get there?
What must we do?
Refreshingly sardonic and sensitive, Morton also makes things confusingly simple. I say confusing because our engrained ways of being make thinking solidarity so expensive! So much energy, so much mental toil spent in the effort to heal the trauma of severance! But subscendence thinking refuses allegiance to explosive Overlords, even down to our introjected General.
So what must we do? We must queer our action!
Morton’s treatment of authenticity reminded me of Module 8 when I expressed my thoughts about it. “Authenticity,” I mused, “must have more to do with at least witnessing (if not honoring) impulse, inclination—how desire speaks itself through “my” participation in rhizomatic entangling.” Authenticity, for Morton, is not an Easy Think Substance, it is, rather—and for all things—“futurality, a not-yet quality that resides in front” of things (Morton, 132). It is that spectral shimmering of which we all partake.
The reason I began this post with “Nature and Eros” relates to authenticity and queered action directly: “Do what you feel” we were instructed (in so many words). Indeed, we did have a loose schedule, but the disclaimer at the beginning of the course was that we needn’t comply with it. Our primary task was to queer the action/inaction binary by becoming aware of how, as Morton describes during his kundalini references, “this energy [i.e. what is bifurcated as the the binary of in (mind) against out (body/world)] appears to be moving, all by itself” (Morton, 184). This was SO hard for me! For so many of us there! Miles away from city-milling, the hustle still hollering in our minds, the General shouting “Should this, should that, SHOULD SHOULD SHOULD!”
Stop shoulding me, Mr. General.
Shut UP, mr. general!
But as Morton tells us, “one doesn’t act awareness, it happens to one. It seems to have its own kind of existence, form its own side. It is not something you manufacture.” Awareness is like the phantom feeling we’re left with after a day frolicking with ocean waves. Like that somatic echo of back and forth, “awareness oscillates or undulates or vibrates all by itself, neither doing or feeling exclusively, neither active or passive” (186). Timothy Morton the Mermaid. Multi-scalar consideration reveals that seemingly static objects like rocks—all things—exhibit “a ground state…of shimmering without mechanical input” (Morton, 187). Brian Swimme might designate this as an expression of the cosmological power he calls “Radiance.” All things radiate their existence as light, coming into resonance in certain ways, reverberating with each other in communion.
To enter into resonance is to realize compassion; to behold the being who impinges on us in all its numinosity; to be inspired toward “kindness.” How do we get there? Along with Morton, Matt tells us in his lecture that consciousness doesn’t have to do. We’re already in the space-time cave of aesthetic causality. Just let go. As Rilke says in his poem “Go to the Limits of Your Longing,”
“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.”
Let go! Allow! Notice what arises! As in Julie’s Poetic Dimension—play!
How confusing! But, ah, what a relief…like waking up from the Nightmare of Reality (as the General would have it), and instead, waking back into another Dream, the Dream so many of us remember nostalgically as the promise of childhood. If indeed “philosophy requires a new theory of action…to help us slip out from underneath physically massive beings such as global warming and neoliberalism,” simply blinking open our Child’s Eyes to the fragility of certain Subscendent wholes might restore that early understanding of magic (Morton, 188). Of the world-shaping power of fictions—now you see me, now you don’t!
But to really get anything “done,” the letting go comes first—so that we may feel, as we become attuned, solidarity in all its treacherous and blissful ambivalence. Let us open to our erotic undulating in the larger undulation that is the Symbiotic Real. Nature-and-Eros.
Björk is sharing Dreams of Humankind’s spectral potential for enjoying maximized pleasure among other specters in the Symbiotic Real. Notice how in the video the typical delineations of animal//plants/machine/land/human/etc. are strangely enmeshed. A utopic vision of mucus membrane blissing-together.
But like Morton, Björk knows that the Symbiotic Real means pleasure and suffering. The next song on her album (Utopia) reflects, as I interpret it, the sobering affirmation of both and all the woes of history that we face post-Severing. “Body Memory” is about getting real, even as we Dream up possible futures:
“First snow of winter
I’m walking hills and valleys
Adore this mystical fog
This fucking mist
These cliffs are just showing off
Then the body memory kicks in
I mime my home mountains
The moss that I’m made of
I redeem myself
I’ve been wrestling with my fate
Do I accept this ending?
Will I accept my death
Or struggle claustrophobic?
Fought like a wolverine
With my destiny
Refused to accept what was meant to be
Then the body memory kicks in
And trust the unknown
Surrender to future”
Morton, T. (2016). All Objects Are Deviant Feminism and Ecological Intimacy. In K. Behar (Ed.), Object-Oriented Feminism (pp. 65-81). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Pomeroy, A. F. (2004). Marx and Whitehead Process, Dialectics, and the Critique of Capitalism. Albany: State University of New York Press.