Wednesday, November 27, 2013


I have finished my doctoral class for this semester as of yesterday. It was a cold, rainy night and a tense ride home in darkness, fog, and traffic. I am now commencing five days off before I deal with the home stretch of Fall semester for my students, and my day job.

Though today is a relatively warm 50 degrees, one should not be fooled; winter is certainly coming. The trees are largely bare, and the grass is beginning to take on a straw-like hue. This week I lost another friend and colleague to a brain tumor, and this has made me start thinking about death.

Death is not an evil, in spite of our dread of it. Physical human death never comes at a good time; whether the person is 20 or 90, we are never quite ready to say goodbye. It occurs to me that death is viewed differently by the dying person and the survivors. Some people are terrified of death, especially if they feel they have more work ahead of them, more life to live. Others welcome it as a relief from what has become a life of suffering. Many who have near-death experiences don't want to come back to life. If their evidence means anything, death isn't something so terrible.

It is a different matter for survivors. The intensity of feeling about the death will depend on how close you are to the person, how much it directly touches your life. We can read the obituaries every day and never blink an eye. We don't know many of these people. For the families and friends, there is a void. If the dead person wasn't liked, or if someone had to spend many years taking care of the dying person, the death may come as a relief. Yet, even in such cases, there are the unresolved conflicts, questions that are not answered.

Death can also refer to loss and change, and is absolutely critical to living a full life, paradoxically. If we are always stuck in the same place, then we never grow as human beings. If we are not made uncomfortable, if we do not have our assumptions shattered, or hit "rock bottom" on a destructive streak, we may never stop to look at the bigger picture. In the class I just finished, we read Philoctetes, a play by Sophocles. Philoctetes was a favorite of Heracles, and after Heracles' death, Philoctetes retained his bow and poison arrows. Philoctetes was needed by the Greeks (Acheans) to win the Trojan War. But when he (in one version) accidentally tread in a sacred place, he was bit by a viper, which left him with a festering leg wound that gave off such an awful stench, Odysseus and his crew voted to leave Philoctetes on an island by himself. Later they come with Neoptolemus (or Diomedes, in some versions) to try to convince Philoctetes to return with them. What ensues is Philoctetes cursing them, saying he will never submit because of what they did by leaving him. On the other hand, when they turn to leave, he continually says, "Don't go!" He is at a death point, but it is not a physical death--he does live, and is healed of his wound after leaving. Philoctetes is stuck in his victim status. He was genuinely wronged, there is no doubt. But when the opportunity comes for positive change, he pouts and would rather nurse his wounds and his pride. The impasse is broken by a deus ex machina--the spirit of Heracles, now a god, appears to him and tells him it is his destiny to go. But this is not a cop-out device on Sophocles' part. Heracles is the better part of Philoctetes--his inner strength and heroic qualities. These have been hidden by his psychological wound, which makes him prefer to stay a wronged victim than risk changing his life.

I see this as a good example of the Hegelian dialectic--Philoctetes is in state A, the Greeks come and present opposing state B, and Heracles represents the synthesis--he is still a victim, but he chooses to take the risk. When someone is stuck in bitterness, depression, or despair it is important that they are ready to make the change. Often we look at others in these states and encourage them to "move on and get over it." But the timing has to be right; otherwise, no real change occurs.

We might say, "But the change would be for the better! Only a whiner or someone with a persecution complex would choose to stay in the state of suffering." Not true. Most of us like change less than we admit. This is why even happy occasions, like buying a new house, moving in or marrying a partner, or getting a new job with more money can cause anxiety. The potential for something better is there--but what if it isn't better? You can't go back to where you were. It's a case of "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know."

I am probably as guilty of this as anyone. I do believe in the power of the unconscious, because it never fails to let me know when I'm getting "stuck", or the tell me the truth of a lost situation. Naturally the message is symbolic--we all know that dreams are strange. But the message still shines through.

Sometimes the message is direct. My friends and colleagues knew that my marriage to my husband was really "over" for years, and I really should have left. But when they said this to me, I wasn't ready to do it. I wasn't happy where I was, but I felt there were too many financial risks at the time. I was attached to certain things about my life that I wasn't sure I could give up. But when the time was right, after we'd gotten rid of most of our debt load, I remember waking up from a dream, and hearing a sentence in my head: "Now it is time to get divorced." I got up, made some tea, and sat on my porch contemplating this statement. It gave me some anxiety, but I realized that I had a golden opportunity. I did the math, and figured out that I could get a place of my own on my salary, even though money would be tight. So, I took the plunge and never regretted it.

In other cases, there is a dream to be interpreted, and sometimes it does nothing but present the conundrum. In my last serious relationship post-divorce, I had a dream where I had a number of people in my house. These were mostly women, and some of them were people I didn't personally care for--they represented negative aspects of personality (like perpetual victimhood). At one point, they told me that all the rooms were taken and I would have to leave. I started feeling anxious, wondering where I could possibly go? But then I remembered that this was MY house, and they were merely tenants. So, I told all of them to leave. I woke up with the phrase in my head, "Take back your house." I had allowed the other person in my relationship to compromise who I was, as well as social expectations, and this was a violation of my own Self. We broke up within days of this dream.

The final example involves John Foxx. While I was still traveling to see his shows, I remember having a dream of him fairly early on. I was in a classroom, and a woman was lecturing on something. He walked right in, and stood in front of me, looking at me. Naturally everyone including the teacher noticed, and most people seemed amused. It was clearly a disruption of the class, so I got up and went out the door with him, to find out what he wanted. As soon as we stepped out of the room, he quickly walked away. In the second significant dream, we were in a large office building, and I believe we both worked there--I seem to recall being a temporary employee, he was more permanent. He would stop me to sit down, and would start to tell me things--things I'd been wanting to know--but he'd get one sentence out, then say, "Oh, excuse me for a minute, I just have to take care of this." Then he'd be off, following a delivery person to take some of what they were bringing for himself, and stashing it away. Again, people were amused by it. This went on for some time, until I got annoyed. He kept telling me to wait, that he was going to finish his thought, but I spent more time waiting, and it seemed unlikely he would resume the conversation. I had noticed that there was an office door with my brother's name on it. (My brother has been dead since 1989.) I told him, "If you want to talk to me, I'll be in my brother's office." He said, "What do you mean, your brother's office?" So, I explained it to him. Later he did come down, and said, "You know, I'm very busy, I don't really have time for this." I replied, "Yes, I know--you're busy spending a lot of time taking things that should be shared with others and keeping them for yourself." I remember that he sort of smirked in his usual way, and that was the end of the dream. The two dreams are related, and the meaning became quite clear to me. The last dream coincided with my last email from him, and thus signaled the end of our friendship.

All of these represent deaths of different kinds--loss of people, beliefs, habits. Often it is for the best, ultimately. Sometimes we waste too much of ourselves on people and situations that leave us stuck. But I think that loss is as much a shattering as it is a void. Something explodes, and despite our best efforts, we don't clean up all the shards. Things reappear--associations we have with people and situations. And we want to be done, we do not want to return to the past. But there may be some fragment of the death, paraphrasing Monty Python, that is "not dead yet". It may not be about the individual or external situation; it is more likely about an internal conflict or belief that we are reluctant to relinquish. When people follow prophets in religious cults who turn out to be false, the belief doesn't go away; it is rationalized into something else. Some battles are too big for us to take on at the time of the death, because more than the external situation is at stake; rationality is no help. They need time and a new opportunity. This is why people speak of "karma" that repeats itself. We did not see then; we might see now.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Wow, I haven't blogged in a long time. It's been a long semester of doctoral work, managing classes, managing my full-time job, and trying to keep up with life in general. Now that things are slowing down for at least a week, I have some time to get back to writing. I hope I can get back into a regular blogging groove, but I can't make promises at the moment. Just check in once in awhile to see what's new if you follow!

What's new with me--I'm working on a chapter for a book project called "Little Horrors", about the notion of children as "monsters" in our modern society, rather than as the paradigm of innocence. When this moves forward and becomes available I will provide an update.

I'm also working on a presentation for the "Supernatural and Folkore in Tradition" conference in the Shetland Islands, March 2014. My talk is about the Jungian Trickster archetype with respect to the traditional "poltergeist". It should be an interesting conference, and my first time seeing the Shetlands. Of course, I still have to pay off the conference, and money is tight now that I'm paying for graduate school AND another car (my 2003 Toyota finally bit the dust in July). To that end, I am selling just about all of my Edward Gorey valuables--you can find them on eBay. First editions, signed copies, all of it. I'm sad to see it go, but it's not doing much on the shelf in my bedroom, either.

So, back to business:

I woke up early this morning to feed Mr. Shiva. It is Saturday, so I have no will to get up and stay up at 4AM. As I was heading back to bed, I noticed a yellow spider on the wall near the light switch. Spiders always seem to breed in old country houses, and this was one of many varieties that suddenly appears out of nowhere. The random appearance of living creepy-crawlies makes it easy to imagine where the notion of "spontaneous generation" came from among ancient philosophers.

I found myself thinking, "What is the meaning of a spider?" Joseph Campbell immediately came to mind, when Bill Moyers asked him about the "meaning" of life. He responded, "What is the meaning of a flower? What is the meaning of a flea?" It doesn't have a "meaning"--it just "is".

Yet, if I think about how this question is pursued, someone would suggest that the purpose of a spider is to keep certain bug populations down, to create a balance in the ecosystem. Some spiders protect plants and are good for gardens. I'm sure we could think of a "reason" for poisonous spiders as well. What occurred to me about this is that we tend to think of things in terms of function. You get a college degree that is "useful", not something that will waste your time "navel-gazing". Everything is about "return on investment". What are you, as a citizen, contributing to society? Are you useful? What happens when you're not useful anymore? Once something--or someone--ceases to provide a function or service, they are discarded.

It seems clear to me that this is an outgrowth of a cultural myth/metaphor that compares man, and life, to a machine. This is a metaphor that's been around at least since the Industrial Revolution. In a corporate or factory environment, one is thought of as a "cog" in the wheel that drives the turbine. Many of our science fiction television programs and movies include the idea of androids or robots, we talk about artificial intelligence and its uses, and in our high-tech world there are talks of brain implants and other chips that previously would have been the domain of the crazy conspiracy theorist.

But let's talk about the crazy conspiracy guy for a second. Why is that such a common theme with those suffering with some variety of paranoid schizophrenic illness? Why not, say, goblins spying on them, or succubi draining them of their life, their thoughts? I would suggest it is because (as Jung suggests) the schizoid is in touch, maybe even lost, in the collective. And this notion of the human machine is deeply embedded in our modern collective psyche.

Another common notion that I've mentioned before is the zombie metaphor. We have a thing about zombies in movies and on television. Our zombies are somewhat believable in the sense that they are usually individuals infected with a virus that turns them into mindless undead devouring creatures.

So, what do zombies, androids, robots, and chip-implanted cyborg humans have in common? They act automatically, without real consciousness or thought. They just do what they do, whether "useful" or destructive (or both). I think the dominance of these metaphors has come out of our reaction to Descartes' famous "cogito ergo sum". When you say, "I think, therefore I am," consciousness is about, in the words of my current professor, "what's from the neck up." We have identified consciousness with the mind, which we associate with the brain. Modern neuroscience and neuropsychiatry works on the hypothesis that our consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain. The focus is always on motor functions, memory, and reason. Why? Because these are the "useful" things. There is some research into emotions, but these are seen more as an embarrassing byproduct.

In short--our whole scientific conception of life is that of a machine, or perhaps a zombie. We have been instilled with the belief that we are no more than (in Lewis Black's phrasing) "meat with eyes". If you go back to what I've said about life having to sustain itself through death, and feeding on itself, it's not hard to see how the zombie reflects the terror that we may be just mindless devouring sacks of flesh.

It is also reflected in our social attitudes. Those who have the most money, according to another cultural belief, work the hardest. The poor, the elderly, and disabled aren't "useful"--they are a burden on the system. Indeed, for all of the pro-life rhetoric, most pro-life politicians would put children in this category as well. They are a burden on the system, they require education and health care and food and shelter, and they can't provide these things for themselves. To be "meaningful" is to have money, and it is assumed that the monied are also the "productive". The monied are not necessarily productive; they are often just clever manipulators, or were born into having it. It's a case of Odysseus winning Achilles' armor over Ajax in the Iliad; Ajax believes Odysseus doesn't deserve it, because he is a manipulator rather than a real warrior in his eyes. But the very notion of manipulation doesn't work in a man/machine scheme--that requires a certain kind of intelligence not measured by motor skills, though perhaps by reason to a certain degree. So, we tend to think of those folks as "productive" or at least being reasonable enough to be successful in the system. (This only works if the manipulator has money--if they are poor and do this, they are cheaters who should be jailed immediately.)

This is the extreme absurdity of assuming that "meaning" has to do with "function". It is understandable that for a society to work, everyone needs to contribute. But we're not machines. Spirituality suggests that societies work best when everyone shares, and treats everyone else with equal respect. This is why "good works" are often foundational, even in churches that believe in predestination. The difference is the truly human one--if you respect someone else, if you have empathy and compassion for their situation, you are moved to help. If you are angry and going to strike someone, your sense of self-reflection and conscience makes you stop and think before you act. A machine does not do this. A machine just charges ahead mindlessly with whatever task they are programmed to do. Anything outside of that causes a malfunction.

We start to lose our humanity when we are too "driven" by ambition of any kind. That single-mindedness makes us forget others. I was floored when a good friend of mine, who had relentlessly pursued the same goal for years, suddenly stopped. Her whole manner was different--she was more relaxed, she could think clearly, she was concerned about those around her. Before that, she would charge right past someone speaking to her, totally unaware of their presence, because she was so lost in her own focus on the "goal". This happens a lot to people; probably all of us have been guilty of it at one time or another. Some crisis is usually what brings about the change, and hopefully the healing.

So, back to our spider. I don't know the meaning of a spider. The spider just "is", like everything else. Understanding the world is not about "how", it is not utilitarian. It is practical and useful to know "how"--science is important in this regard. But it does not corner the market on the truth of all existence. Knowing that the blue sky is caused by light refraction doesn't make the blue sky any less beautiful or mysterious. It doesn't make this whole lot any less mysterious. And that is the real role of myth and religion--to experience and negotiate the wonder of existence, both positive and negative.