Wednesday, October 31, 2012

NDE: THE VIEW FROM THE CARPAL TUNNEL



A ROSE FOR ELLEN


Traveler in the dark,
hitting broadside a pick-up truck,
your last thought a flash

like a shooting star:
Now at last I’m going to see
if there is anything beyond.

In the hospital, you felt a great light
bloom through you, white-blue
petal flames of stars:

There is no there.
There is only now
.

*

They are modes of travel:
a rose, a star. You and I
liked to travel alone,

so a moment could blossom again
in thought’s afterlife.
Ellen, I can no longer tell

best moments from the worst,
bringing wisdom, a rose,
with its rapturous thorns.

You thought I was the adventurous one –
seventeen, asking a bus driver,
in a tongue that hurt,

broken glass in my mouth,
Excuse me, Sir, could you kindly
repeat the directions –

Alone in America –
not because I was brave;
because I didn’t know

what I was doing. You knew:
“My first marriage lasted
ten years; my second one,

two months – ” you smiled,
an artist defending her right
not to live in a hurry,

passing this way only once.
Traveler in the night,
I knew why you loved

the music of shadows,
sepia photographs.
In your there that is

here, Ellen, ride an echo.
Come by to remind me:
The afterlife is now.

~ Oriana © 2012



**

A lover of coolness and clouds, I know I sound like a freak to those who possess one or both of these luxuries most of the year. But for me summer is always my little apocalypse, sometimes getting more intensely apocalyptic as heat licks the house with tongues of hell.

Last summer it was the disastrous hyaluronic acids knee injections, meant to restore my ability to take long walks and even hike in the mountains. Alas, I developed a severe inflammation and was virtually house-bound and in pain for months. As often happens, a new insight emerged as I scoured the Internet for information (including the price of various wheel chairs). The insight was this: all arthritis (mine is post-traumatic, just in the left knee) is auto-immune. Of course! Inflammation involves the immune system. Armed with this awareness, I dare say I saved myself and no longer compare prices of wheelchairs, though my strolls are hardly the long walks I was hoping for.

This summer I had the near-death experience involving computers. Laugh if you will, but my life is centered on my computer, and two crashes in a row, the second one being Growlie’s death of old age, left me computer-less for stretches of time. Since the first crash happened when I was suffering from severe carpal tunnel, and constantly breaking my vow to stay away from the keyboard, the enforced rest seemed downright providential. As I said to a friend, “If I were a believer, I’d be on my knees giving thanks.”

Unable to type, I had to content myself with reading, which I agree expands one’s mind, even if it’s not as satisfying as writing. The most important book that I read, three times over, was Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life. Bering brilliantly explains why we there is no soul, destiny, or a universal meaning of life -- and why we tend to believe in such things in spite of lack of evidence.

The chapter called “Curiously Immortal” deals with the belief in the afterlife as the “cognitive hiccup of gross irrationality” (p. 114), since it’s essentially impossible for us to imagine non-existence. We are practically forced to be in denial of death. It’s been wisely observed that we can’t stare into the abyss for too long (and Nietzsche warned that the abyss stares back at us). One say to live on without being paralyzed by the fear of death is the solution offered by most religions: if you believe in the correct deity and/or are a good person, you will be rewarded in paradise. Another solution is to treasure the now. I particularly love Rilke’s “To work is to live without dying.”

Those already familiar with my blog can predict where I am going. But for new readers who might be waiting for accounts of near-death experiences, let me first toss in Jung’s, which strikes me as quite interesting. It took place after Jung’s heart attack in the winter of 1944, before stories of the tunnel, the light, the greeting relatives, heavenly music, and perhaps a glimpse of Jesus became commonplace.

Jung said he found himself high above the earth -- later he found out he’d have to be 1000 miles above it to see the continents the way he saw them. Directly below him was Ceylon, and the view of India (Jung had visited both places, and the trip was one of the most important experiences in his life). His vision extended across the “reddish-yellow” desert of Arabia to the tip of the Mediterranean. Then he turned and saw a floating boulder:

I had seen similar stones on the coast of the Gulf of Bengal. They were blocks of tawny granite, and some of them had been hollowed out into temples. My stone was one such gigantic dark block. An entrance led into a small antechamber. To the right of the entrance, a black Hindu sat silently in lotus posture upon a stone bench. He wore a white gown, and I knew that he expected me. Two steps led up to this antechamber, and inside, on the left, was the gate to the temple. Innumerable tiny niches, each with a saucer-like concavity filled with coconut oil and small burning wicks, surrounded the door with a wreath of bright flames. I had once actually seen this when I visited the Temple of the Holy Tooth at Kandy in Ceylon; the gate had been framed by several rows of burning oil lamps of this sort.

At that point Jung felt that he was being stripped of all desire and regret. All his wishes, “the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence,” fell away. Only his essence remained: everything he’d experienced and accomplished. He was about to enter the temple and be with the people to whom he belonged (here I recognize the Swedenborgian notion that after death we join our “soul group”). But at that moment he saw his doctor float up to him. The doctor was in what Jung calls “his primal form,” surrounded by a golden chain or wreath. Telepathically, the doctor told Jung that he must go back to earth. Jung felt terribly disappointed, and at the same time worried about his doctor -- why was he able to appear in his primal form? Jung reports that the doctor did die shortly afterwards, of septicemia.

I find this NDE account fascinating in that Jung, the son and grandson of Protestant ministers, had a near-death experience that was completely non-Christian. It seems to have been strongly influenced by the Eastern tradition (note the temple patterned after the Temple of the Holy Tooth in Ceylon, and the Hindu seated in lotus posture) and by Swedenborg’s vision of the afterlife as being in the company of kindred minds (thieves with thieves, intellectuals with intellectuals; I’m not sure if I’d want to be with poets). 




There were neither Lutheran hymns nor something like a butterfly migration recently described by a neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, featured in a recent issue of Newsweek (itself headed for digital afterlife). By the way, Dr. Alexander did not experience a tunnel nor greeting pre-deceased relatives. His guide was a beautiful young woman -- somewhat like Dante’s Beatrice once Dante is in heaven. Wish fulfillment at last. (To give him credit, however, he did not “go toward the light.” Instead, once above the fluffy clouds and the shimmering beings, he experienced “an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting.”)




And I don’t suppose anyone is surprised that when Tibetan Buddhists have near-death experiences, they describe the bardo exactly the way they had learned it would be. Each culture and each age creates its own images of the wonders that await us “on the other side.”

However, we should remember that Buddha himself refused to speculate about the afterlife. He insisted that there is no permanent self, and made concentrating on the present moment the core of  his teaching. While the debate will no doubt continue, it is wise to remember Buddha’s wisdom: all we have is now.

In her poem “All Hallows,” Phoebe MacAdams writes:

Flowers and death 

hold hands 
in the season of souls; 

during Dias de los Muertos 

the arms of death are full of flowers, 

every skeleton offers a marigold and 

black, orange and yellow 
are the season's colors.

Mortality is a blessing 


in the darkness; 

nothing to do but 

treasure, 

and let go

**



 **



in line with Halloween: an opossum that lived in a baby grand piano in Virginia

Darlene:

OK, Ms Happy Atheist, if you were to have a near-death experience, what do you think yours might be like?

 
Oriana:

Heart attack is fairly common in my family, so who knows, I just might eventually really have an NDE. Of course I’d hope for a completely surprising one: no tunnel, no light, no deceased relatives. A merry-go-round ride through the universe -- why not . . .

But of course no one can predict. I’ve never wanted to be unconventional. It simply happened to me, starting with a fairly unusual childhood. My desperate teenage ambition was to be average, to be “like the others.” But since my life has been unconventional, I suspect that I might end up with a very conventional NDE: yes, tunnel, the white light, my grandmother waiting for me, perhaps with my favorite cousin who happened to die prematurely. Organ music, the way it was played at St. Jacob’s in Warsaw.

No, I can’t really imagine my own NDE. But I know what my heaven would be like: a beautiful college campus, with some wooded areas like the lush North European forests. The sound of the cuckoo, which is the sweetest, muffled, swallowed call, not the harsh mechanical cuckoo-clock annoyance.

But there’d also be a fantastic botanical garden, and of course a magnificent library. And the best lectures in a variety of fields: geology, history, philosophy, biology, and on and on -- no limit. Jesus might lecture on the history and sociology of religion. All the lecturers would be charismatic. And now and then I’d like to give a lecture.

No god -- what would be the use of him/it? Maybe he could organize an occasional group discussion on the nature of reality and the meaning of everything. At first I’d probably be an eager participant. But after a while I see myself preferring opera, or a good play. For art, you have to have conflict. Even a good poem has dramatic tension. In heaven? Only the great art of the past would still make one “feel alive.” (No wonder the very idea of heaven strikes many as insufferable.)

But there could still be plenty of intellectual stimulation. And I wouldn’t preclude romance, either. Or fine restaurants. Or being able to continue my blog for a new, responsive audience. My heaven needs to have love and work, aside from beauty.

Too bad that this is doomed to remain just a fantasy. As Leszek Kolakowski said, “Why should the universe be so constructed as to listen to our desires?” As Milosz observed, a modern person can’t possibly believe that real life starts only after death. How horrible earthly life has to be for such a belief to become real . . . Case in point: the Middle Ages. Many people prayed for an early death. 


And when they prayed, “Thy Kingdom come,” they really meant the end of the world. They dearly hoped to see all around them destroyed utterly: even the great castles and cathedrals, the trees, the animals. All, all had to go. Was it Nietzsche who said that the foundation of religion is contempt for life?
 
Mary:

it's not surprising to me that people have ndes that fit with their religious or spiritual backgrounds, or that diverge from their backgrounds. i really do feel people have the ndes that they need to have, to go wherever they need to go next, it's an invitation there. some people are being invited deeper into something they already have; others into something new. (how i have arrived at this, is a very long story.)


Oriana:

I'd love to hear your story. I'm not in the least surprised that people have NDEs that fit with their religious backgrounds or spiritual beliefs, but I'd be surprised to hear that anyone's NDE differs from what they already know, at some level.  The closest I've come is certain dreams, and on analysis, if I had no clue in waking life, no info would come. I realize this doesn't constitute a proof, one way or the other, but I do wonder -- if others are having all sorts of mystical experiences, why am I, a poet after all, deprived of anything of the sort? I mean, inspiration, sure, but the best writing comes from the unconscious, and that's not regarded as anything mystical, not even by Jung. Jung's theory of creativity was "cryptomnesia" -- http://oriana-poetry.blogspot.com/2012/10/jung-in-land-of-dead.html



Mary:

Oriana, I will tell you my story sometime, I am not always in a frame of mind/heart where I can talk about it. I personally feel everything is a "mystical experience" of some sort if the mind/heart is open. I definitely feel that while reading your poems! Doesn't have to be really a grand or dramatic experience like Jung's aerial view of Europe. [Oriana: it was actually Asia, with just the southern tip of Italy showing, but I understand what Mary means]


[PS: Sadly, Mary died not long after Thanksgiving 2011. She was suffering from adrenal insufficiency. Alas, we will never get to know about the experiences that made her believe in the afterlife. I am glad that her brain created for her a soothing story. Most people die peacefully, surrendered to the process of the gradual shutting down.]

Denise:

http://www.care2.com/greenliving/from-near-death-to-cancer-free-an-amazing-true-story.html?page=1

 
Oriana:

To me everything is a natural experience. For instance, I once did actually come close to dying. I felt my body shutting down system by system, and I was experiencing great peace, thinking oh, so this is what it feels like to die. The peacefulness was lovely. After recovery, i remembered that large amounts of endorphins are released in traumatic situations -- I wish we had those endorphins more often, under less life-threatening circumstances. // Believe me, I'd love to see the universe as totally benign, and all cancer miraculously (or otherwise) healed (thank you Denise -- I know we lump all such recoveries under "spontaneous remission," since we don't really know; but maybe one day we will) -- I'd love to experience something absolutely mysterious, the Jungian mysterium tremendum -- and mind you, my background in science isn't all that deep, though more than average -- but, darn it, everywhere I look, everything I remember, points to natural processes with no need for any divine or angelic assistance. 

It's like waves in the ocean -- we no longer need an ocean god to explain the waves and storms. As John Lennon sings in "Imagine": above all, only sky. Once I fully accepted that, enjoying the moment became very important to me. And it was while watching my mother die (I had "hospice at home" -- I can't praise hospice workers highly enough) that I had, with great intensity, the insight: "We are of the moment." And that moment should not be wasted on quarreling, feeling disgruntled about little stuff, and so on.

By the way , it strikes me as almost funny that I seem to derive much strength from my atheism,  quite like people who derive strength from their faith. That wasn't always the case. I had to come to the feeling of certainty and stop wavering. I think it's the power of clarity. 


Scott:

As usual, love the pictures; the beauty of the butterflies and the ugliness of the opossum is a great contrast! If you substitute Nantucket for Ithaca in Cavafy's great poem you get the gist of my feelings; who knows why that little windswept isle has captured my imagination so. You know Melville is a great favorite of mine but as much as I enjoy his writing I am I think more enamored with the whaling aspect more than anything. I'm one of those few....those ' happy few '....who loves the whaling digressions. I'm sure a Jungian analyst would have quite an entertaining session or two trying to ascertain why a child of the agrarian South would be so caught up in the activities of a small Christian sect of a little New England island. I can only imagine their NDE's chasing the world' largest carnivore!


Oriana:

Scott, you are a treasure! Also, if you ever have an NDE, Melville will probably be waiting at the end of the tunnel. He'll point out the place in the ocean where you'll glimpse the whiteness of Moby Dick.


Scott:

I'm hoping it will be Starbuck or some other 'Weighty Friend'! To be at the helm of a whaler in the South Pacific on a moonless night while the 'starry archipelagoes' pass overhead would be a nice NDE as well.

Oriana:

I should have thought of it! Fictional characters should be given at least as much weight as famous authors. We speak of great writers as being “immortal,” but it’s actually the characters those writers created who are immortal. And yes, I’m almost sure that an NDE could be very pleasant in the company of a favorite fictional character.




 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

JUNG IN THE LAND OF THE DEAD

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.



For several years, my brain kept testing the hypothesis of the “spirit world” as a source of hidden knowledge. For instance, I used to have a recurrent dream in which I’d ask someone who should be an expert (on of my high-school teachers, for instance), “What’s the Russian for” -- and here I’d insert a word I was seeking. Or, “What’s the French for [ ]?” “What’s the German for [ ]?” Not once did I get an answer. After waking, I’d  come to the reasonable conclusion that if I did not have the word in my vocabulary, my brain (presumably enlightened by the “spirit” I was trying to contact) wasn’t going to supply that information in a dream. When I reached complete clarity on the matter, the “foreign language” dreams ended.

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.


**



Charles:

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.

 
Oriana:

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.


Lilith: 


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.

Oriana:

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. 





Sunday, October 7, 2012

KEATS’S NIGHTINGALE AND RILKE’S ANGEL


ANGEL WITH THE SUNDIAL (II)


In the storm that rages round the strong cathedral
like a denier thinking through and through,
your tender smile suddenly engages
our hearts and lifts them up to you.

O smiling angel, sympathetic stone,
your mouth distilled from a hundred mouths:
do you not mark how from your always-full
sundial our hours slide off one by one –

that so impartial sundial, upon which
the day’s whole sum is balanced equally
as though all our hours were rich and ripe?

What do you know, stone-born, of our plight?
And does your face become more blissful still
as you hold the sundial out into the night?

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, tr, J. B. Leishman
  (slightly modified by Oriana)


**

I fell in love with this poem at first reading, when I first discovered Rilke in my twenties -- so many years ago that it seems like another lifetime. Unpredictable, the words that may connect one stage of our life with another; timeless ripples in time.

There are so many great lines here, and the poem works so well in English (including the rhymes, often a translator’s downfall -- but here we see Leishman at his best) that I am surprised that this exquisite piece from The Book of Images is little known. You’d think that many Rilke lovers could recite the second stanza by heart:

O smiling angel, sympathetic stone,
your mouth distilled from a hundred mouths:
do you not mark how from your always-full
sundial our hours slide off one by one –

**

The poem flows by itself, each word inevitable, even in translation. But this sublime angel remains largely undiscovered, obscured by its larger, lethal kin perched in the Duino Elegies.

Let’s “take it from the top,” as a quirky (but aren’t they all?) professor of mine used to say. The first stanza is interesting in itself. What is this “storm that rages round the cathedral”? I no longer remember my source for this information, but one explanation may be biographical. When Rilke and Rodin visited Chartres together, Rilke, for whom it was his first visit, was surprised by the wind around the cathedral -- “the wind in which we stood like the damned.” Rodin replied that there is always a wind around the great cathedrals.

Before we go into the metaphorical meaning of the “storm around the strong cathedral,” let me dispose of a more literal interpretation. The stone walls of medieval cathedrals (which used to double as fortresses in wartime) are massive not only in height, but in thickness. That’s why it’s always cold inside, even on a hot summer day. But I never noticed much of a draft of coldness seeping out from the inside. The turbulence noted by Rilke may have been due to the complicated air currents as the wind pushes against and flows around the giant walls.

Also, Rilke might have known the legend of the wind around the Strasbourg cathedral: the wind there waits for the devil (trapped inside god’s fortress) to ride it again. Hence the “denier” might refer to the “spirit that always denies [or “always says No”), a line from Goethe’s Faust.

But let’s assume that the denier refers to an atheist who feels enraged against religion, but rather than express his hatred in a purely emotional outpouring, tries for rational arguments. Though Rilke was influenced by Lou Andreas-Salomé’s belief that all religions were human invention, like Lou he shared a longing for a “real god,” one who does not divide humanity into the saved and the damned.

Rilke felt that it’s possible to experience this kind of divine presence, with no need for doctrine or blind belief. Though outwardly hostile toward Catholicism (he forbade the presence of a priest at his funeral), he was drawn to the poetics of Catholicism, the tenderness embodied in Mary and, now and then, other figures, in this case an angel. In spite of the literal as well as emotional and intellectual storm around the cathedral, the angel greets us as a beautiful and loving being:

your tender smile suddenly engages
our hearts and lifts them up to you

*

I especially love the lines that open the second stanza:

O smiling angel, sympathetic stone,
your mouth distilled from a hundred mouths:

The sculptor made the angel in man’s image. It’s a collective image: “your mouth distilled from a hundred mouths.” An angel is a human self-portrait. But it’s a wishful self-portrait, with wings. That’s how beautiful and serene we’d look if we’d known nothing but affection in place of being screamed at and punished. This is how we’d smile if we knew nothing about abandonment or betrayal. This is how smooth and soft our faces would be if we never experienced stress and suffering.

The angel, a stone bird and a man-bird, cannot know that all our hours are not “rich and ripe.” It can know nothing of the human life, and yet

your tender smile suddenly engages
our hearts and lifts them up to you

That happens thanks to the power of art and the power of a smile, whether on someone’s face or in a painting or on a statue. A smile expresses affection and trust. When we see a smile, we tend to relax and smile back, which automatically makes us feel better. 

And then the final irony:

What do you know, stone-born, of our plight?
And does your face become more blissful still
as you hold the sundial out into the night?

The angel is blissful because he is blind and innocent -- innocent in the sense of “ignorant.” He doesn’t even know night from day.






*

When I recently re-read Rilke’s poem, I saw why its theme seemed so familiar to me: it echoes what Keats says in “Ode to a Nightingale.” I’ll quote only the relevant passages.

[that I might]
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
  What thou among the leaves hast never known.
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
  Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
  Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
     Where but to think is to be full of sorrows
          And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes
  Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.

. . .

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
  No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
  In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
  Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
  The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, in faery lands forlorn.

**





Here it’s not the physical bird that is immortal, but the song, the pure powerful voice from the leafy throat of darkness, changeless over thousands of years (Jugians would probably speak of the “Nightingale Archetype”). Regardless, like Rilke’s smiling angel of the sundial, the nightingale cannot know anything of human sorrows. The speaker wishes to forget “What thou among the leaves hast never known.”

Keats creates quite a catalog of these sorrows. While nowadays not many young men die of disease (especially TB), old age is still a pathetic stage for most. The process of aging, in the sense of decline and deterioration, has never ceased to be a source of sadness, even dread. The young foolishly say, “I hope I never get to be old.” But they will, and no prayers, no crying for mercy to god or the universe will be answered. Anti-oxidants won’t save us, nor the promised but medical miracles. Our biological clock progressively activates the death switches that lead to less and less capacity for tissue repair. The debilitated elderly are in fact a much more common sight now than in Keats’s time -- one of the cruel ironies of modern medicines.

And yet, and yet . . .   In spite of all the sorrows still ahead, we can enjoy the song of the “immortal bird.” And by giving us delight, statues or paintings of smiling angels lift our mood -- regardless of our belief in angels. I don’t find it strange. After all, we can take pleasure in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus without the slightest belief in Aphrodite and the strange story of her sea-birth. (A shameless digression: the word “sea” is part of the etymology of “soul.”) It’s not about belief; it’s about beauty.

I certainly hope that colleges will continue offering classes called “the Bible as literature,” just as they offer classes in mythology. And no one, based on taking a class, will actually hurry into the woods to offer an animal sacrifice to Zeus or Wotan. Aesthetic pleasure can be entirely divorced from belief, without decreasing our ability to enjoy any form of art that used to be connected with worship.


 ANGELS IN ART: THE UPLIFT

These days even devout believers find it hard to imagine God as a man with a white beard floating in the sky, or seated on a throne amid clouds. New definitions have been attempted. There has also been a tremendous resurgence in the popularity of angels, but again people are beginning to see them differently – not necessarily with wings. “Angel” means “messenger” – and a messenger can take many forms. A bird beginning to sing while you are in despair might be understood as a messenger (and not only because a bird is a symbol of the Spirit).

In The Believing Brain, Michael Shirmer states that “we can’t help believing” for two main reasons: what he calls “patternicity” (seeking patterns) and “agenticity” (an agent must have caused this for a purpose). The human brain is wired to seek meaning, so anything perceived as meaningful, as conveying a relevant message, can serve as an angel/messenger. For instance, in Milosz’s poem “On Angels,” an angel (or a message) resides  in birdsong as well as in the smell of apples.

It could be argued that anything that makes life seem worth living falls into the angelic category. It was the literal belief in angels in America that astonished me completely. In Europe, its churches crowded with angels, its castles with plump-buttocked cherubs, it’s difficult to see angels as anything but art. And art means distance. It’s makers are undeniably human. It was cunning to forbid “graven images.” It is a danger to religion to allow humans to be such  obvious creators. As soon as it allowed images, dissident Christianity was already on its way to “secular humanism.”

But wishful thinking will never disappear. We want the universe to love us. Or, if not the whole universe, then some element of it, kind and protective. With luck, kindness and protectiveness is what we get from other human beings. What the universe gives us is beauty.

Yet even those of us who don’t believe in angels smile back at at the statue of a smiling angel. After reading Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, a book I cannot praise enough, I came to see how any theist religion is a matter of universal cognitive illusions that stem from teleological (purpose-oriented) bias (again, Michael Shirmer’s “patternicity” and “agenticity”).

And still, when I think that cathedrals were built in honor of a cognitive illusion, I’m stunned. And I’m willing to honor the deep delight that can be provided by “human, all too human” religious art.

(Shameless digression: I just remembered how teenage St. Thérèse of Lisieux (“The Little Flower”) allegedly looked at a dazzling meadow of wildflowers (before she entered Carmel, of course; no more meadows after the doors of the convent closed), and said, “So much beauty wasted on mere earth.” This, to me, is one of the horrors of old-time religion: the rejection of this world in expectation of the future one, the only one that mattered. “Mere earth”! How far we have traveled, in the space of one century, from that dismissal to Mary Oliver’s famous question: ““What is it that you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”)

THE ANGEL IN SAN FRANCISCO

                      for Sutton Breiding


In San Francisco an angel
bears a fluted holy water conch –
a marble smile, celestial.
The Golden Gate opens into fog
on the gothic bones
of builders and suicides.

Cloud-eaten hills,
views of Alcatraz;
drunks grinning to themselves
in Victorian doorways . . .
Angel, you smile as if you knew
that beauty is the sole excuse.

The city rises and falls
here at the slippery
ledge of the continent.
Seagulls blur with white sails.
In the Palace of Fine Arts,
a bronze Perseus lifts

the head of the Medusa,
though he himself is headless.
But you, mild angel, bless
all who enter the dim vestibule.
Here at the tomb of god,
you change stone into hope.



~ Oriana (c) 2012


**

Hyacinth:

Rilke’s angel poem is beautiful whether you believe in angels or not. I do believe in guardian angels. I've seen too may near misses to not believe there was an intervention. Maybe not in the Biblical sense but much more.

 
Oriana:

How interesting (and understandable) that you believe in guardian angels. That's called an “argument from personal experience” (or the experience of others whose veracity you trust). I, on the other hand, have experienced too many (or “just enough”) incidents when a guardian angel would have been extremely useful to protect me or a loved one, but alas, the bad thing just happened, the damage often irreversible.

So I find it 50/50 at best, with no objective evidence for special protection -- exactly as the case of prayers. Some say it's good enough that prayers are answered 50% of the time -- but that's a random result, like tossing a coin. Besides, every near miss can be explained by the laws of physics, provided we have enough knowledge. We don’t have that knowledge, so we call it “luck” or, because the human brain is wired for “agenticity” (the belief in a conscious agent who acted with a deliberate purpose), a “guardian angel.” But whatever happened did not violate the laws of physics. The same goes for every death or injury in a collision or anything else. In nature there is nothing supernatural.

And what about the young man in my past, who, feeling he was a failure, a loser, committed suicide? Was his guardian angel truly a loser? His mother, a devout Catholic, prayed for her only child every day -- were a mother’s prayers ignored?

When the news shows a survivor of a plane crash, say, I can't help thinking of the 200 others who were not saved, and not because they were sinners while the saved one was a saint. Or a mother of three small children killed by a drunken driver; a young man paralyzed, likewise because of a “stupid” accident. I know I don't have to multiply examples. There is simply no evidence: the negatives cancel out the positives. Sad, because it would be consoling to believe!

But truth wins out over emotional need, at least in my case, no matter how great my emotional need. I could never drown my sorrows in religion or alcohol. For me, what works is work. I love what Rilke said: “to work is to live without dying.” 


Scott:

This post has made me want to investigate a poet I have long wanted to read about. Charles Peguy was a French writer who converted rather late in life to Catholicism after being a critic of it most of his life. When WWI began he joined the army and was killed in the first weeks of the war; he at least was spared the horrors of years in the trenches. He apparently was a classicist as he had this great quote:


"Homer is new and fresh this morning and nothing, perhaps, is as old and stale as this morning's paper."

Another late convert to Catholicism was the New Zealand poet James K Baxter. The son of a noted pacifist who would not serve in WWI and was brutally punished, he was educated in Quaker schools and after a converting first to Anglicanism he became an unorthodox mystical Catholic. Baxter's life would make a great movie, he led a most unusual life; his poetry is well worth checking out.

Oriana:

I've met two people who converted to Catholicism in adulthood. It must be a totally different experience than being indoctrinated as a child. I don't think an adult becomes as terrified of hell, for one thing.

I went to mass several times as an adult, but it seemed a poor ugly thing compared with the lovely Latin liturgy and the whole splendor before Vatican II. You can't go home again, but I didn't think my childhood would be stolen from me, so to speak. In Warsaw I was very eager to visit my old church: the statues of saints were gone, even St. Anthony who used to greet me when I'd walk in, and most of the paintings. Where the chapel of Mary used to be, bars blocking access. A barren ugliness.

And the priests uninspired, non-charismatic. The church used to attract good minds, but I think that's history. The poets you mention at least had the old beauty still available to them. The doctrines have always been absurd, the costumes and attitudes medieval -- but the ritual used to be lovely. And whatever loveliness remains from the “Ages of Faith” -- the Angel of the Sundial, for example -- let us feast on this beautiful work of man the creator.