Somewhere in nowhere
we sit in his car, meeting in secret
even after death. He says,
Every three years
I burn my diaries
to make room for new books.
I wake in the amber half-light,
thinking the past can’t be burned
because like the heart
it’s too rich with blood —
Weeks before that fatal July,
he closed his eyes and whispered,
Remember only the beauty.
He handed me a page
lettered in his tight script:
Dark rose blossoming onward,
spreading into me,
into everything —
The dry season daily grows more dry.
Sycamores hiss dusty brown.
Wind drags the claw-like leaves.
Those first evenings
when we talked into the night,
soft drizzle beading the windshield,
slanting the haze of street lamps
haloed in fog, ghosts, twigs.
Why should I weep for him,
meaning: for myself?
Remembering the past
is like reading Tarot cards,
the Fool with his Rose
forever stepping off the cliff.
Dark rose unfolding
in the rose of now,
I sweep away
the endless leaves.
Who wants to read their own
diaries, epitaphs of a self
parked in nowhere,
making long complaints?
Every three years I burn myself.
With finger dipped in ashes
I write upon the wind:
Remember only the beauty —
rose petals rimmed with rain.
~ Oriana © 2012
It seems mysterious and startling that the dead beloved would say, in a dream, "Every three years I burn my diaries / to make room for new books." I had that dream several months after his suicide, when the initial shock (which taught me the meaning of "emotional shock") had worn off enough so I could begin to "remember the beauty."
Did he actually exist in some form in the realm of the dead, a brain-free consciousness capable of entering my dream to tell me something I’d remember all my life? Or was my own brain simply putting together bits of information about people burning their diaries and the need to let go of things to “make room” for the new?
I ceased to believe in brain-free consciousness at the age of fourteen, when I realized that the Judeo-Christian tradition was just another mythology. Still, could there be a “real god” unlike Zeus, Wotan, Yahweh and other lightning-wielding gods of wrath? Was there something like “cosmic intelligence” to which we were connected? Almost the entire population of Southern California seemed to believe there was. Could I escape being affected by the massive eruption of belief? No.
That, to be sure, is trivial. If someone wanted to know a word in Hebrew, it would be absurd to advise him, “Wait for a dream in which you meet a rabbi, and he’ll tell you.” For words, we have dictionaries. We have Google. But if you google “spirit world,” you get pages and pages of websites, many with images of the “astral plane” and beyond. Contrary to Freud’s imagery of the “black mud of the occult,” the websites paint paradise in pink and blue pastels, streaked with lavender light -- and look, here are the happy angels mingling with butterflies. Some of the websites express pity for the “troubled, confused individuals” who are mired in their attachment to the “dense, slow vibrations” of the physical world. Troubled Reader, did you think that the twenty-first century was the “Age of Science”?
All my friends with one exception believe in the reality of the “spirit world.” The one exception, a brilliant academic woman, is willing to call herself an atheist, but even she keeps the door slightly ajar for signs and wonders. Therapists, I’ve been told, don’t go to other therapists; they consult their favorite psychics, those who talk with the dead. Am I surprised? No. Going to a psychic is non-threatening and less expensive. And it’s certainly attractive to believe that the souls of the departed hover about, trying to help us, guide us, give us important messages.
One of the famous thinkers in the debate about the reality of the “spirit world” was Carl Jung. In his PhD dissertation, “On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena” (1902), Jung presented a fascinating set of observations and interpretations that seem to have been forgotten later -- not only by Jungians, but by Jung himself.
Reader, rouse yourself from your dense, slow vibrations, and prepare to be amazed.
ADVENTURES IN TABLE TIPPING
I need to admit that my main source is Richard Noll’s The Aryan Christ (1997). The book is mostly hostile toward Jung, sometimes extremely so, especially in the chapter on anti-Semitism. But the two chapters dealing with the spiritualist séances and Jung’s doctoral dissertation seem impartial, and do not contradict what I’ve read elsewhere. If anything, Jung emerges as a brilliant young man.
It’s not well-known that Jung’s mother was what today we call a psychic. There is some hint of that in Jung’s saying that she had two personalities (he thought the same about himself when he was growing up). In fact Jung’s maternal grandfather, Samuel Preiswerk, a pastor in Basel, also claimed to have “second sight.” Once a week he’d lock himself in his study and put himself in a trance state in order to communicate with the dead (chiefly his first wife, to the dismay of his second wife). Jung’s maternal aunt, Augusta (Gusteli), was also a psychic. Thus, the idea of receiving messages from the dead was familiar to Carl Jung since childhood, and it’s not surprising that he wanted to investigate the phenomenon.
(We should also note that between 1850 and 1920, both Europe and America were in the grip of the spiritualist craze. Séances were often condemned by Christian churches since spiritualist leaders claimed to take their authority not from the Scripture, but from contact with the spirits of the dead.)
Jung tried to study spiritualism by participating in séances, with his young cousin Hélène (Helly) Preiswerk acting as the medium. At the beginning, Carl was the only male participant; Helly, her sister Luggy, and Carl’s mother, Emilie, were the others. The first séance took place in June 1895, one month before Jung turned twenty. Helly was only 13 when she revealed herself as a medium.
The participants were seated around a table, lightly resting their fingertips on its surface. When the water in the glass placed in the middle of the table began to shake (a common spiritualist phenomenon probably caused by involuntary muscle movements of the tense, expectant participants), Helly slumped in her chair and said in an eery way: “Grandfather visits us. I must set off on a journey. Ask where he sends me. It is my place to accept.”
Helly then fell to the floor. Jung and Luggy carried her to the sofa. Jung then asked, “Where is Helly?” In a husky voice, Helly replied, “Don’t be afraid. I am with you everyday, your father Samuel who lives with God. Pray to the Lord and ask him to please make sure my grandchild reaches her goal, as she finds herself over the North Pole, in icy heights. That is the shortest way to America.”
Jung asked,”Why America?” The reply had to do with Jung’s maternal aunt, Bertha, Emilie’s older sister, who’d emigrated to Brazil and married a Mestizo (i.e. a man of mixed race). Helly was to prevent Bertha’s having a dark-skinned child (“Negerlein”). But she “arrived” too late, and soon Grandfather Preiswerk, through Helly’s mouth, was asking the assembled to pray that god forgive Bertha.(Reverend Preiswerk was certainly a man of his time; should it surprise us that he’d remain a racist in his alleged afterlife?)
The other two séances held in 1895 were not not as dramatic, but still unnerving. The third one involved a prophecy; Helly asked Jung to leave the room, since the information was “not meant for his ears.” Jung walked out, but stood concealed near the door, eavesdropping (who could blame him?) What followed was a prophecy, in Grandfather Preiswerk’s voice, that the child of Helly’s older sister, Dini (Celestine) “must die. I can’t save it.” Toward the end of August, the child (conceived “in sin,” a few months before the wedding) was born defective, and soon died. After the second child, born the following year, also died, it was revealed that Dini had syphilis.
In September, Helly’s father died, and her Uncle Samuel, the eldest son of Reverend Samuel Preiswerk, forbade his niece to participate in séances, under the pretext that Helly was to devote herself to preparing for her confirmation. The sessions resumed only two years later. Meanwhile, Jung sent Helly and Luggy many books on spiritualism, including The Seeress of Prevorst by Justinius Kerner. Helly was fascinating by Kerner’s account of the most famous German medium of the early nineteenth century, and re-read the book many times.
CRYPTOMNESIA: MEDIUMS AND ARTISTS
In 1897, the séances were secretly resumed. This time Helly produced a crowd of the dead, some of them historical; others claimed to be barons and baronesses, with fictitious-sounding names. Eventually one spirit took over: a Jewish woman named Ivenes -- small, dark-haired, and “morally pure” (“snow-white”). Ivenes claimed to have been the Seeress of Prevorst in her previous lifetime. She also lived in the Middle Ages, and was burned as a witch. In Ancient Rome she died as a Christian martyr; some centuries before that, she was one of King David’s concubines. Ivenes also claimed to have visited Mars, and gave a detailed account of the Martian civilization.
At long last, Jung grew suspicious. A pseudo-scientific book of speculations about the Martians -- who built the alleged “canals” on Mars -- was popular at the time. Jung realized that Helly concocted her Martian story based on what she’d read in that book. Likewise, the personality of Ivenes was based on what Helly had read about the Seeress of Prevorst. In fact everything that Helly said seemed to have come from things she’d read or heard. Furthermore, Jung became aware that Helly was in love with him, and tried to produce interesting trances to keep him interested.
However, Jung did not think it was a case of simple fraud, even though many mediums had already been exposed as faking their trances. Rather, he ascribed Helly’s performances to “hidden memories” -- “cryptomnesia.” The spirits of the dead were the product of Helly’s mind.
In 1902, Jung published his doctoral dissertation, “On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena.” He diagnosed Helly (disguised as “S.W”) as suffering from hysteria, a broad term used to explain a great variety of unusual symptoms -- in this case trances, fainting spells, and changes of voice and personality meant to represent different spirits. The medium, however, was not an actress consciously putting on a performance. The “spirits” emerged from her unconscious, which had absorbed and transformed material found in books, but no longer consciously remembered.
Jung cited an analogous case described by Théodore Fluornoy. Fluornoy’s medium described her past lives on earth as a member of a noble family in India, as well as her past lives on Mars. She even spoke “Martian,” which Fluornoy recognized as glossolalia (“speaking in tongues” -- ululations which do not correspond to any known language). The French psychiatrist was able to demonstrate that his medium’s tales could be traced to what she’d read, but later apparently forgot.
In 1905, Jung wrote an essay on cryptomnesia as a source of creativity. Works of art did not arise out of nothing; they were novel transformations of previously absorbed information or memories of actual events. In Noll’s words, “new combinations of memories . . . or previously learned material are the wellspring of creativity.”
STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF DWARFS
Cryptomnesia also accounts for cases of unconscious plagiarism. Jung found Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra to be strikingly similar in places to passages by Justinius Kerner (1786 -1862), a minor poet and writer drawn to the paranormal, author of “The Seeress of Prevost, revelations of the human inner life and about the penetrations of the spirit world into ours.”
Jung contacted Nietzsche’s sister to find out if the philosopher had read Kerner; she confirmed that Nietzsche had read Kerner in his youth. I don’t suppose anyone really cares if a giant like Nietzsche unconsciously (or even consciously) plagiarized an obscure spiritualist author, but I was pretty stunned when I read about it. True, ideas do not arise out of nowhere, but are a collective creation more than we like to admit. We may stand on the shoulders of giants, but those giants may have stood on the shoulders of dwarfs.
(Justinius Kerner was also to leave an imprint on Søren Kirkegaard, who wrote in his journal:
“I cannot help being amazed that Justinus Kerner (in his Dichtungen) is able to interpret so conciliatingly the phenomenon which has always shocked me since my very first experience of it — that someone says just exactly what I say. To me the phenomenon seemed to be the most confusing, almost Punch-and-Judy disorder: the one would begin a sentence which the other would finish, and no one could be sure who was speaking.” July 11, 1837)
These days we are aware of the related phenomenon of “false memories.” In a sense, most of our memories are false, if they were to be compared to a videotape recording. This is not exactly a new discovery. Mark Twain, for instance, quipped that as he grew older he remembered a lot of things, “some of which had actually happened.” No one is shocked anymore if a psychologist states that most things we remember never really happened, or at least they didn’t happen the way we say they did. Memories are only partly based on actual events and partly on what we have absorbed from books and movies and the stories told to us by others. The unreliability of court witnesses is legendary. Human memory is continually constructed rather than recorded in an unchanging form. We don’t necessarily consciously lie about our past; we select, embellish, and “confabulate,” according to the meaning that particular events have for us now.
THE OLDER JUNG “FORGOT” WHAT HE HAD LEARNED ABOUT HIDDEN MEMORIES
Jung, who had originally sought to prove the reality of the immortal soul and the ability of the living to communicate with the dead, ultimately diagnosed Helly’s trances as both hysteria and hidden memories. The part about hysteria was characteristic of that period in psychiatry. Unfortunately, it ruined Helly’s reputation and her marital prospects. Hysteria was regarded as mental illness stemming from “hereditary degeneracy” and “bad blood” in the family. Helly’s niece, who wrote a book about her aunt’s séances with Jung, ascribes Helly’s death of tuberculosis at the age of thirty to a broken heart.
Jung’s confirmation of hidden memories, as well as his later application of cryptomnesia to creativity and unconscious plagiarism, strikes me as brilliant. It seems hard to believe that he’d forget his youthful discovery, especially since he built on it in his doctoral dissertation. And yet Jung either did forget it, or else considered himself an exception to the rule.
Several years later, after his break with Freud, Jung spent a lot of time in solitude, producing what is now known as his “Red Book.” We should remember, however, that even before the break, and in spite of his conclusion that Helly’s trances were essentially based on acquired information, Jung continued to show a great interest in the paranormal. We have the famous story of the loud cracks in Freud’s bookcase, which Jung called an example of the “catalytic exteriorization phenomenon.” After Jung was gone, Freud noticed that the cracks continued, without any correlation with Freud’s thoughts. Consequently, Freud wrote in a letter to Jung, “the furniture stands before me spiritless and dead, like nature silent and godless before the poet after the passing of the gods of Greece.”
“Nature silent and godless” was not acceptable to Jung. Noll suggests that in order to produce the Red Book, Jung did what his grandfather Preiswerk used to do in an attempt to communicate with the spirits: he’d induce a trance state in himself and record the images and ideas that arose. Later Jung called his technique “active imagination.” The name sounds homey and non-threatening, unlike “shamanic journey” or “visionary experiences.” However, Noll and others have suggested that Jung’s own trance practice led him to intense visionary experiences comparable to those reported by religious mystics.
Of course, as with dreams, all would depend on interpretation. True, in a lecture Jung did admit that his reading “entered” his visions, but he did not see his consciously accumulated erudition as the source of what he experienced. Jung, always a voracious reader, had read an enormous amount in the fields of theosophy, spiritualism, alchemy, gnosticism, Eastern traditions, archeology, world mythology and history of religion, including the mystery religions (e.g. the Eleusinian and Mithraic mysteries). Yet when he analyzed the visions and pronouncement of his “guiding spirit,” Philemon, or Salome, Elijah, and other figures that appeared to him, Jung did not interpret this in terms of hidden memories based on his reading.
Instead, he came up with the theory of the collective unconscious. Those images and messages were universal, Jung claimed. They were the hidden “racial memory” going back to the primeval fertility rites. The idea that the most likely place the images and messages came from was his own extensive library did not seem to occur to Jung.
Hysterics, as Freud put it, “suffered from reminiscences.” Needless to say, Jung did not see himself as a hysteric. That term applied mainly to women like Helly, with her limited mentality. Jung saw himself as a genius and a prophet summoned to reveal hidden truth not only to the living, but also to the dead. In his Seven Sermons to the Dead, he addresses the spirits of the Crusaders, disappointed because they did not find the salvation in Jerusalem. He tells them they were deceived by a false religion. To quote Noll:
Jung tells the knights that they were mistaken to seek salvation outside of themselves by journeying to Jerusalem. Instead, the real secret of rebirth can only be found in the “innermost infinity.” If they would only look inward they would see at a distance on the inner horizon a single Star in the zenith. The inner star is the “one god” and the “goal of man.” Invoking familiar pagan beliefs, Jung tells the howling Christians that after death the soul does not go the Christian promised land but toward god as the sun or star within. With this revelation of the pagan path to redemption, the Dead become silent and vanish up into the night sky to find their eternal rest. (p.161-2)
In Jung’s Zarathustra-like poetic prose (Noll’s translation):
Whereupon the Dead were silent and ascended like the smoke above the herdsman’s fire, who through the night kept watch over his flock.
~ Philemon, through the gateway known as C.G. Jung, Summer 1916
In spite of the alleged paganism, the image of the Good Shepherd steals in.
I am not sure what Noll means by “invoking familiar pagan beliefs.” The ancient depictions of the afterlife took many forms and did not necessarily involve rebirth. There was the Norse and Celtic “cauldron of regeneration,” but I can’t remember anything about the soul going “toward god as the sun or star within.” And I dare say that the vision of a star within is more intriguing.
“Going toward the Light” is familiar to us from New Age afterlife lore and from the stories of near-death experience, as is the term “inner light.” But even so, this doesn’t seem to be the same as traveling to the star within rather than an actual white light somewhere in the universe, or perhaps in the fourth dimension, or in hyperspace (whatever those terms might mean).
I realize that someone of New Age persuasion might reply that after death there is no difference between within and without. Still, reading Noll’s translation of Jung’s words confuses me even more. And oddly enough, Jung’s own NDE in 1944 did not include “going toward the Light.” Instead, according to his own account, Jung was about to enter a Hindu temple (familiar to him from his trip to India) before he got “called back.”
Jung died before the veritable explosion of NDE accounts that we have now, with Lutherans reporting hearing Lutheran hymns while those more inclined to New Ages beliefs hear New Age harmonies and chanting. Grand symphonic music has also ben reported, but not, to my knowledge, Russian folk songs (just give it time). And Tibetan Buddhists bring back visions of the Bardo, complete with demons and the hungry ghosts. An atheist I once met told me of the blazing light that poured through her, together with the thought: “There is no there. There is only here.”
What does this diversity imply? No startling revelation, only the well-established verity that we are deeply influenced by our culture and our peers. Even mystical experiences are colored by the culture, so that Jesus and Mary look exactly as in the paintings. We are both individual and collective. A single individual has no meaning apart from his social context. As Christian Wiman says, Experience means nothing if it does not mean beyond itself: we mean nothing unless and until our hard-won meanings are internalized and catalyzed within the lives of others.
Jorge Luis Borges says it beautifully in the poem below (translated by WS Merwin). Borges sees no need for the supernatural; the connection with humanity is enough.
INSCRIPTION ON ANY TOMB
Let not the rash marble risk
garrulous breach of omnipotent oblivion,
in many words recalling
name, renown, events, birthplace.
All those glass jewels are best left in the dark.
Let not the marble say what men may not.
The essentials of the dead man’s life --
the trembling hope,
the implacable miracle of pain, the wonder
of sensual delight --
will abide forever.
Blindly the willful soul asks for length of days
when its survival is assured by the lives of others,
when you yourself are the embodied continuance
of those who did not live into your time
and others who will be (and are) your immortality on earth.
You say that Jung believed his cousin’s visions were based on her memories and her reading, but later when he (Jung) had visions, he believed those to be authentic communications from entities in the Land of the Dead. I have an assistant who happens to have been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic (he’s quite harmless, since he believes he’s Jesus), and he says, sure, many other people also hear voices, but those are fake voices. Only his (Brian’s) voices are real.
We are lucky that Brian thinks he’s Jesus and not Satan. And I suppose only Brian is the real Jesus, while all the other thousands of Jesuses on the mental ward or wandering in the street are fake Jesuses. It’s so easy to see that other people’s visions are just hallucinations; but our own? They must be real.
(Let me quickly explain here that it’s perfectly normal to experience a hallucination now and then; the human brain creates dreams with great ease, and there are situations where it can create an auditory and/or a visual hallucination; you don’t even have to take drugs to experience this phenomenon. My most common auditory hallucination is the sound of rain).
Jung seemed to have forgotten his own conclusion about “hidden memories.” Later on he was more prone to accept other people’s visions as likewise coming from the “collective unconscious,” and that was more than just one’s own personal unconscious. The collective unconscious was a “racial unconscious,” composed of mythic layers. In more than one source I read that Jung wasn’t especially interested in a patient’s personal problems, let’s say a troubled marriage. He was waiting for the “transpersonal” or “archetypal” material to start emerging in a patient’s dreams. He thought that the healing brought about by his kind of analysis was a result of the patient’s coming to know the numinous -- also known as the transcendent, or mysterium tremendum.
Here again we have Jung trying to escape Christianity by turning to the quest for the “real god.” Jung kept changing his definition of god. One of the most interesting of those “definitions” was “god as trauma”: something that thwarts our will, devastates us enough to change our perception.
Jung was never really a scientist, but in his youth he tried to have at least a semi-scientific worldview. Later, he became an out-and-out mystic.
Jung in the Land of the Dead is a wonderful bog. Thanks for the flattering description of me as the atheist who keeps the door ajar. Dreams are a place where the signs leak in for me.
I know you mean “blog”; those naughty spellcheckers. Recently I was writing about prostate debulking, and the spellchecker made it “prostate debunking.” And that could be right on. All kinds of occult wisdom resides in the spellchecker.
Any time we step into spiritualism, we are indeed in a bog of wishful thinking. The dead go somewhere, right? They don’t just cease to exist -- we can’t really imagine non-being. We like to think that the dead exist forever, and are happy. Their essence, disembodied, cavorts around the universe. It is extremely uncomfortable to think that that the somewhere where the dead go is nowhere, nothingness, void. Or assuming reincarnation -- who wants to be a baby again, and then go to school, all that hassle? Of course we’d rather imagine paradise.
Now, one thing we know for sure is the dead stay in the memory of the living. I like to think of it in terms of "remaining." We can indeed remain here on earth in a disembodied form -- in the minds of others, including dreams. And let us not forget the immortality of influence, or call it simply the ripple effect of so many things we say and do. It's anonymous, but indeed, non omnis moriar.
Is it all strictly an inside job, i.e. the brain seeing patterns where there are none? There may be a dimension to the universe about which we know nothing at this point, something psychoid, perhaps, having to do the parent sensing when something happened to a child who's in Australia. It's not god in any traditional sense, nor even anything benign.
Yet I am also resigned to seeing that Christianity really formed me and there is only so much liberation possible. Jung tried heroic measures to free himself. In one account, even after his NDE, he struck a disciple as “still searching.” I'm finally not searching and at peace. Funny, peace can come either from secure belief or from secure non-belief.
Even if there is that other dimension, there is no need to do anything about it. No temple, no devotions, no horrible small-organ music, no carcinogenic incense. All that falsifies and even poisons what is automatically a part of infinite interconnection. If I had to choose a "practice" it would be quietism. Do nothing, think nothing, let whatever may come emerge in your consciousness. It would be lovely just for a while to be completely, blissfully quiet and experience that non-interference with the universe.
As for seeing signs and wonders everywhere, that is explained by Jesse Bering in a separate chapter in The Belief Instinct. It follows from the way the brain is wired to perceive pattern and meaning. Too much of it, though, can be dysfunctional. Someone who perceives practically everything as having a secret meaning is classified as schizophrenic.
Another book that explains “signs and wonders” is Michael Schermer’s The Believing Brain. He has invented the terms “patternicity” (seeking patterns) and “agenticity” (the belief that there must be an intelligent agent who designed things for a purpose). Are the signs and wonders strictly in the observing brain? Or is there indeed some unknown external dimension or agency that produces them? We may reserve our right to be agnostic, but we’d do well to remember our built-in cognitive biases.