Anima mundi in transition: dystopian reflections and a slow boat to ChinaStephen Farah
The theme for the IAAP (International Association of Analytical Psychology) to be held in Kyoto in 2016 is ‘Anima Mundi in Transition’, the movement of the world soul, or the world soul in transition. The central premise is that Jung highlighted a disconnection between man in modernity and his relationship to nature.
The development of Western philosophy during the last two centuries has succeeded in isolating the mind in its own sphere and in severing it from its primordial oneness with the universe. Man himself has ceased to be the microcosm and eidolon of the cosmos, and his “anima” is no longer the consubstantial scintilla, spark of the Anima Mundi, World Soul.
Carl Jung, CW 11, par 759
For Jung, true to German Romanticism, nature is a manifest expression of soul or the unconscious. The outer disconnection between man and nature is also reflected in man’s disconnection from his own inner nature. In other words there is something analogous between civilisation, in particular secular scientific modernity with its emphasis on technology, and rational consciousness. Both dualities set up a polarisation with nature. The challenge of this state of affairs is that man becomes alienated from and antagonistic to nature, to the Great Mother. This cycle of antagonism fractures man and he is displaced from nature both within himself and the world.
This is all old hat; everyone already knows this, at least man’s displacement from the natural world, and this problem is amongst the central concerns of the zeitgeist of the last twenty or thirty years. My own sentiments are with Zizek on this. The current situation has become one hell of a lot worse since Jung’s days and now has a decidedly apocalyptic feel. Zizek adds to this though that there is no point of return, what lies behind us is only myth, there no actual topographical location, no space or place, to which we might return. That doesn’t deny that the situation at the moment is critical, only that some ideas of its remedy may be a little naive.
Historically mind you, these issues have not weighed very heavily on my own mind. I’m not sure why this is, but imagine that my inveterate urban and to a degree urbane orientation is a part of my anesthetisation to the disconnect from and harm being caused to the natural world. Unlike most of my countrymen I have never been into the great outdoors, far preferring to read a good book sitting on the sofa in the lounge. And when one is so inclined there is already a disconnect form the natural world such that the constant appearance of nature conservation and global warming concerns just don’t have the sense of urgency for me that they do for some.
The above being noted something has shifted in me that has caused me to become distressed about our environment and our world. All of a sudden I feel a sense of oppression in relation to the world, as though it has lost some of its previous colour and has taken on a decidedly dystopian character. I’m not sure where this oppressive sense sprang from or why I only feel it now. I began thinking, meditating perhaps, on this Anima mundi in transition question and it has led me down this road.
There are elements of my own country, South Africa, that I find decidedly oppressive, rampant corruption, poor governance in many areas, escalating crime, poverty, erroding infrastructures and urban decay, to name a few amongst many other issues. Because of the history of South Africa and the fact that I come from the minority that were so privileged the expense of so many, one is normally inclined to shut up about these things and take your medicine so to speak. And my intention here is not to ride the old “oh things were so good in the old South Africa” hobby horse – because if one has any ethical sensibility at all, then clearly this is shameful stance to adopt. Nevertheless one cannot, or at least I cannot, help recognising valid environmental and social concerns. The thing is, at least for me and of course this is an essentially subjective perspective, there is nowhere else I would rather live than Africa – I fucking love Africa; I was born here and I pray that I will die here under the blazing African sun, under her skies of brilliant blue and be buried in her blood red earth. All of which is to say that to recognise a dystopian aspect in Africa is for me at least to see the world through a dystopian lens. Beyond my subjective perspective though,the paradigm that we lived in at the height of democratic capitalism, under the overarching banner of the stars and stripes, is perhaps more than frayed. I think it is not unreasonable to say the great secular materialist ball of cheese has not only moved, it has been thrown down a very deep abyss from which its return is looking increasingly doubtful.
All of which brings me a question. What is the most meaningful way to engage with and navigate the world when faced with its dystopian character? My question here is one which does not concern itself with the doing of things. I take it that it is self evident that everything possible should be done to protect the planet, our natural umwelt (world) and to engender the most hospitable civil, social and political environments. I am not saying this is necessarily being done or that no more can be done, but only that I do not address this doing in the world aspect in what I say here. I trust there are others far better equipped than me to give commentary on that topic. I assume here rather a philosophical and psychological lens and look at the issue through that perspective, to borrow from Fromm the lens of “being” rather than that of doing.
As a point of entry I am given to wonder about the objective character of beauty. Is a vista of unspoiled nature, a rolling green field, the African bush, a mountain, the ocean or a waterfall, objectively more beautiful than a scene of urban decay as springs up in most major cities worldwide over time, concrete, steel, broken windows and garbage as seen in a dingy alley in the inner city. This is a philosophical question hotly debated in aesthetics and ethics. I do not propose to resolve it here. However let me simply say that I take it that it is an objective truth, that some things are objectively more beautiful than others, and even if not it may as well be from our perspective, it is certainly a phenomenological truth.
The above being said it does open a door, a possibility perhaps or re-conceptualising and reimaging beauty, its objective status notwithstanding. I am deeply impressed by an idea I encountered from the Sufi tradition, courtesy of Tom Cheetham, of how access to an inner heaven, a paradisiacal state that is perceived as having a certain type of topos –a certain place, albeit a place of no place, which once encountered opens to envelop the external topos the outer world in which the subject is located. The idea in other words is of an access to a spiritual state conceived of a s a place wherein the capacity or potentiality exists to radically alter the landscape in which the subject was previously located, prior to this place ‘Alam al- Mithal’ being accessed. Now I realise that immediately such an idea, for those not already ensconced in mystical practise and beliefs, is not only opaque but bound to set their bullshit detectors on high alert. Ideas such as this are termed mystical for good reason, they are outside of the paradigm of secular rational consciousness. And my intention here is certainly not to convert anyone nor apostatise mysticism.
Rather I wish to share with you an idea, maybe more of an image, an imagination I have that for me represents a doorway into Alam al-Mithal, an inner heaven as it were, a place which has no topography in the conventional sense of the word. The idea first came to me or, perhaps more honestly, was given to me by the scriptwriters of the series Lost. That epic series came to a conclusion which seriously pissed off a lot of its fans, my brother included, who was not shy to share his umbrage at the “inconclusive” ending. Now admittedly I was not as avid a viewer of the series as the true Lostnites, however for me the final episode was deeply satisfying. I would like to advance two reasons for this, although one is slightly tangential to the thesis I wish to share with you:
I don’t think life is conclusive – except that its guaranteed conclusion is death. But is death not the greatest mystery of all, who can claim to understand it, the mortician, the forensic pathologist, the priest, the dead man maybe? Why should art make any more sense than life, is art in mimicking life’s irrationality not the ultimate tipping of its hat, the greatest compliment it can pay its source. Besides if you really think about it, only the irrational is rational in the final analysis. A rational universe, were it to exist, would surely to be the greatest absurdity and anomaly of all.
What art can do though is grant us meaning, that is its brief after all, to re-render, re-imagine raw primal terror in a form that evokes the numinous, the glorious, the divine. It has no other purpose, anything else is not art, it’s just decorating. This brings me to the second reason I applaud the scriptwriters of Lost for their artfulness is composing such a sublime conclusion to the series. Very briefly, one needs to regard the trials and tribulations of characters in the series as the trials and tribulations we all go through, the island of course being a metaphor for the island upon which we are all stranded. Just like them we too cannot get off the island nor make sense of its bizarre character, try as we might. In the final episode this group of friends who have journeyed together, fought shoulder to shoulder, been amazed, confused and awed in turn by the events that unfold through the story have all died (they do not know this, nor do you the viewer until the very end) and gather together again, healed and whole in the place of no place and, of course, no time, in Alam al-Mithal.
Using this mythological image, the gathering of the chosen, not I suppose entirely unlike the Biblical Rapture spoken about in Revelations, but more personal, more intimate, affords I believe one way of re-imagining our location in a dystopian setting. Another metaphor or example of this idea we encounter in Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, the power of imagination to re-constitute reality; specifically here though my imagination leans to this image of the gathering. A gathering of soul mates, where we take this idea quite literally – friends of my soul, people that I have encountered or am yet to encounter that move me in a quite definite way. These are people who fill me with joy, passion, interest, that are stimulating, intriguing and imaginatively provocative. The kind of people I would want to have at the perfect dinner party or as my companions on a long journey. Another cinematic metaphor is useful here, the penultimate scene in The Master where Lancester Dodd sings a song to Freddie Quell who is his soul mate but whom circumstances prevent their being friends in this world. He sings,
I ‘d love to get you
On a slow boat to China
All to myself alone
Get you and keep you
In my arms ever more
Leave all your lovers
Weepin’ on a far away shore
Out on the briny
With the moon big and shiny
Melting your heart of stone
Honey I’d love to get you
On a slow boat to China
All by myself alone
I’d love to get ya
On a slow boat to China
All to myself alone
A twist in the rudder
And a rip in the sails
Drifting and dreamin’
Honey throw the compass over the rail
Out on the ocean
Far from all the commotion
Melting your heart of stone
Honey I’d love to get you
On a slow boat to China
All to myself alone.
I put it to you that knowing who you would wish to be with on a “slow boat to China” is not an unimportant question. This coming together with another human being, this encounter, where you are elevated beyond the prosaic, the mundane, the petty and frequently ugly details of life, has to be one of the things that makes living this life worthwhile. Most of us can count on one hand the encounters we have had of this nature. Where we meet someone and fall, at least temporarily, madly in love. And to be sure I am taking about love here not lust its avaricious companion. Of course love is frequently accompanied by lust, but to limit those you love to those you lust is a great personal injustice. No I am taking about people you have encountered where you have been lost to the world, lost in time and perhaps even lost in space in their company. People whose presence reminds you of something easily lost in this often brutal existence, love, meaning, friendship, companionship, connection, of the kind that allows you to connect with the transcendent, if only for a moment.
Jung has it that the Self archetype, the archetype of wholeness is constellated in groups. I think this is borne out by our own experiences; it is with another that I feel most alive, most joyful. However and this is where consciousness comes in not just with anyone, but with my soul mates. With the group of people that my soul remembers as it were, not literally but those with whom I share a deep affinity such that it is as though I have always known them.
When you think about the very best of times, the moments in your personal history that are highlighted that, if given to sentimentality, you return to from time to time to savour as you would a particularly fine wine. The taste, the tone, the feelings, the weight of those moments are more to do with who you shared them with than where you were geographically speaking. I suppose there are some exceptions to this where the where was more important than the who, but these are surely in the minority. Real happiness, enrolment and engagement has to do with relating to others, not where you are, or how enchanting the physical topography was. Enchantment, real enchantment, is related first and foremost to Eros surely, relatedness to your (spiritual) brothers or sisters, friends or lovers. We often celebrate hardships when shared with the right people, people to whom the adversity of the circumstances bring us closer. It is the being with the other that makes the unbearable bearable, the adverse favourable, the ugly beautiful, the disenchanted enchanted, the disconnected or fragmented whole. It is when I am with you that I feel this project of being alive is truly worthwhile and for you I am willing to endure the unendurable, because in your eyes I see God and my life becomes something worthy, noble and perhaps even beautiful.
This to me is the antidote, at least psychologically, to the danger of personal disillusionment, the loss of faith that is frequently not only the hall mark of the dystopian but also its catalyst.
I leave you with a Hindu myth, a story about Ganesh:
Ganesh and his brother Karthick were the divine children of Lord Shiva and his wife Parvathi. One day their parents offered a prize to the child to first circumnavigate the world three times. On hearing this Karthick wasted no time mounting his swift steed (a peacock) and celebrated knowing he was far swifter than his brother.
Ganesh for his part simply walked three times around where his parents Shiva and Parvathi were seated. On being asked by them what he was doing he answered, “You Shiva and Parvathi are my whole world”. To which his parents smiled knowing that Ganesh was not blinded by Maya and saw the truth as it truly is.