Category Archives: Unconscious

Emily Dickinson and the Unconscious

Today I am following up with further thoughts on a little Emily Dickinson poem that I explored yesterday:

‘Twas such a little—little boat 
That toddled down the bay!
‘Twas such a gallant—gallant sea
That beckoned it away!

‘Twas such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the Coast—
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost! 

The little boat being swept out to sea is the fragile human ego, always adrift upon the unconscious wash that carries us along, individually and collectively.  The persona that our ego has crafted, i.e. “the boat,” is very fragile and susceptible to being “carried away” too far from the shore and “lost” or even being “sunk” into the abyss of despair.  Our unconscious fears tend to keep us tethered tightly to the comfortable shore which, should we never find the courage to lose sight of for a moment, Jesus posed the famous question, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”  For if we never venture from the shore, we will remain bound to the tribal conventions in which we were born and never discover the Divine potential that was given us at birth, we will never discover the Christ child that lives within.

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Julia Kristeva, Shakespeare, and the Unconscious

Julia Kristeva, the Bulgarian-born French psychoanalyst is one of the primary influences on my intellectual and spiritual life.  Recently her term, semiotic chora, has been falling into place for me, tying together for me a variety of spiritual/intellectual themes that have drawn my attention for most of my adult life.

She borrowed this term from Plato’s “Timeous”, using it to describe a “space” between being and non-being.  This buffer zone might be thought of as the pre-conscious, a murky realm where our animality conjoins the symbolic realm, the domain from which will spring consciousness.  And between this chaotic, “non-sensical” realm there is discontinuity with consciousness which is related to the Oedipal transition and, in my estimation, the Biblical “fall” from Grace.  This is the domain of experience that Shakespeare’s Macbeth was aware of when he lamented, “My dull brain is racked by things forgotten.”  Here Shakespeare was revealing one of the reasons for his literary brilliance, his “dull brain” was always teeming with effluvia from the semiotic depths of his heart which is why his work speaks so powerfully to the human heart even today.

With this foray into linguistic intricacy, I admit I am a bit over my head.  Let me be safe and put it into laymen’s terms…being a layman myself…there is a region of experience beneath the surface of our life which is unconscious.  All of us know about it though when it surfaces we often dismiss it with a simple lament, “Now why did I do that?” or “Why did I say that?”  And occasionally the playwright of this drama in which we each have a bit part brings along a character like Donald Trump who glaringly demonstrates this unconscious element of our individual and collective psyche.

Awareness of this unconsciousness could be completely stifling.  For example, the words I am spitting forth here are coming spontaneously.  They are flowing from my heart, driven by this unconscious dimension I have put on the table.  I am mentally healthy enough to not be so worried about my unconsciousness that I am fretting about every single thought that I convey here, or every single word I choose.  For, should I do so I would very quickly be so stymied by the resulting hypertrophied self-reflectiveness that I would not be able to do anything but sit here and, and, well…., ahem, alas and alack…probably just burst into tears at some point, a complete meltdown!

Mental health, or actually spiritual health, will allow us to recognize the presence of an unconsciousness in our life but not be so terrified of it that we feel out of control.  Recognition of this dimension of our life is merely acceptance of our human-ness and with that might come a dollop of humility which would allow us to be less strident with our viewpoints and more accepting of those who see things differently.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

 

 

Shakespeare, Madness, and Trumpism

Sometimes I’m tempted to focus on Shakespeare alone in this blog.  His work offers us more wisdom than I’ve found anywhere else, if one has the courage and discipline to explore it.  As I’ve argued recently, I think his work reveals that he thought that madness inflicted the whole of this human endeavor and that even the “consensually validated reality,” if closely examined reveals this to be true.  Freud probably had this in mind with his book entitled, “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

One line from the play, “Hamlet” that has always intrigued me on this subject is, “What’s mad but to be nothing else but mad?”  Shakespeare was telling us, “We are all ‘mad’ but the label ‘madness’ belongs only to those who are ‘nothing else but mad.’”  Yes, everyday life is “psycho-pathological” but to waste much time and energy calling it that is kind of, well, kind of “nuts.”  Labels like “psycho-pathological” or “mad” must be reserved for those who go beyond the pale of everyday insanity and illustrates for us what is really going on with our daily grind of “consensually validated reality.”

But there is a continuum to this madness that we are all inflicted with by virtue of being “mere” humans.  There are occasionally people, even prominent people, who come along and illustrate for us madness though manage to avoid institutionalization and possibly even become powerful political leaders.  In my lifetime I can think of people like Idi Amin,  Sadam Hussein, and their predecessors, Hitler and Mussolini. And, you guessed it, there’s Donald Trump.  Though Donald Trump was “freely” elected in a democracy, his election proves the speciousness of any notion of “free will.”   Trump is a good example of someone who Shakespeare would describe as mad but he would also note that with him there is definitely “something other” than mad, meaning he really doesn’t deserve the label “mad,” but he sure comes close to it!  He is pretty far down on the spectrum toward madness but he lives in a culture that has found what he offers valuable enough that they are willing to overlook words and deeds that would disqualify most people from the White House and from the entitlement of the word “sane.”

It would be so helpful if my country would use this moment in its history for self-reflection and consider the wisdom that Shakespeare offers us here.  If we were mentally healthy as a culture we could contemplate our “madness” as Shakespeare challenged us to do and not be daunted by the task, realizing that to contemplate the notion does not make us “mad.”  For, most of us in this exploration would learn to chuckle, or even guffaw at things we began to discover about ourselves, quirks and oddities which reveal merely the conflicted nature of human experience and do not mean that we are mad.  But one dimension of the human ego which can tyrannize one into madness is the fear of having any flaw, and of having any flaw coming to the light of the day.  That fear often drives us not acknowledge our conflicts even if this lack of acknowledgement causes these conflicts to worsen to the point of mental illness or even to the point of validating one who is mentally ill and electing him President of the United States.

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

John Masefield and Our Hidden Riches

Poet John Masefield, the British Poet Laureate from 1930-1967 wrote a sonnet which I always think of when I read Shakespeare’s 46th sonnet which I blogged about two days ago.  Masefield also grasped the presence a hidden dimension of reality which is usually overlooked in a world where only the superficial is valued.  In his words, “like lame donkey lured by moving hay, we chase the shade and let the real be.”  Enculturation deprives us of our connection with the real, a necessary step of “joining the human race.”  But often enculturation is so rigid, or our lack of courage is so pronounced, that we spend our lives clinging to the “fig leaves” our culture has provided us and neglect the hidden realm of true Value.

But Masefield’s sonnet noted that this hidden resource, with its immense power, is always there and often is not accessed until the accumulated duress of living on the surface accumulate in our heart and bring us to “our straitened spirit’s possibility.”  But having our spirit, or soul, subjected to “straits” is painful and it is easier to find another escapist amusement to take our attention away from the pain that is necessary in going beneath the surface and drinking from the “well of living waters” that Jesus spoke of.

Before I share this sonnet, I’d like to quote W. H. Auden on a relevant topic, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand.  But he clung in panic to his tall beliefs and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

Man has his unseen friend, his unseen twin,
His straitened spirit’s possibility,
The palace unexplored he thinks an inn,
The glorious garden which he wanders by.
It is beside us while we clutch at clay
To daub ourselves that we may never see.
Like the lame donkey lured by moving hay
We chase the shade but let the real be.
Yet, when confusion in our heaven brings stress,
We thrust on that unseen, get stature from it,
Cast to the devil’s challenge the man’s yes,
And stream our fiery hour like a comet,
And know for that fierce hour a friend behind,
With sword and shield, the second to the mind.

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/literarylew

Ta-Nehesi Coates: “Thinking They are White”

Ta-nehesi Coates’s book on racism was one of the most provocative books I read last year. Mr. Coates grew up an impoverished black child in Baltimore, Maryland, managed to escape with an education, and wrote this very revealing book about what it is like to grow up under the tyranny of racism in ’70’s and 80’s America.  One line that really grabbed me a class of people who learned to “think they are white” and the power that comes with that understanding.  For, being white in America did carry, and still does to a large degree, implicit assumptions of power, i.e. prerogative.  Growing up a poor white boy in Arkansas I clearly remember discovering early the “black-white” distinction in my culture, the blacks being known, of course, as “N…….s” and viewed with great scorn and contempt.  Looking back I now recall distinctly how important this was as a poor white, having a class of people who were lower on the totem pole than we were though we were very low socio-economically.  Learning to “think I was white” was one of the most important early discoveries of my life, very much a formative part of my identity the early stages of which involves drawing distinctions between self and others, including between my group and other groups.

But Mr. Coates’ observation, “thinking they are white” really cut to the quick with me, conveying to me what he had seen about the smug observations we make early in our childhood which become solid bedrock in our cognitive grasp of the world.  And with my grasp of my “whiteness” I knew that though I lacked many things, no one could take away from me my “whiteness” and with that status came the power of eating on the right side of the diner, using the nicer bathrooms, drinking at the white water fountains, and going to the better white schools.  It was nothing I thought about…consciously.  It was a given, a basic assumption, an implicit part of the template through which I viewed the world.  I had a power that many others did not have, regardless of how powerlessness I might feel otherwise in my life.

Though I have long since gone beyond this racist view of the world, I know the template is still there in the depths of my heart thought quite faint.  In the past decade as I’ve aged I have recognized faint racist imagery and thoughts creep into my consciousness, an experience which has not alarmed me because I see them for what they are.  The earliest imprints from our culture, even those “burned in” on our pre-conscious soul, never leave us.   People may vehemently deny being racist but very often their behavior and passing thoughts betray them.  For example, note the Republican Party which is quick to deny racism but has systematically and persistently sought to deny blacks the right to vote in recent years.

Racism is only the surface of a deeper problem, an intrinsic dimension of identity formulation already alluded to.  For an identity to begin to organize and to escape the matrix in which it first existed, that “blooming, buzzing, confusing world of sense experience” spoken of by William James…it must draw distinctions between it and the “other”.  Blacks in my early life, and in most of my generation, was one of the earliest “others” that we found and when we “othered” them it was done with great emotional intensity.

So racism is merely an essential part of American identity and all cultures and tribes have some similar process at the bedrock of their collective psyche.  But I’ve discoursed here only as an introduction to my next blog post, the Christian faith utilized as a contrivance for identity formulation and, devoid of maturation, serving only to “other” masses of people.

Embedded in Our Thinking #4

A judge in Tennessee provided us this week another demonstration of being embedded in our own thinking and the poor judgment that can ensue.  He refused to grant divorce to a straight couple, explaining…and I paraphrase…”Well, if the Supreme Court can tell us what is and is not marriage then I must wait until they take the next step and announce what divorce is.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/09/04/tenn-judge-refuses-to-grant-straight-couple-a-divorce-because-of-gay-marriage/)

This judge is voicing a conservative trope that is in the vogue currently, “judicial tyranny.”  The Supreme Court’s decisions have repeatedly rebuffed them in recent years and they are peeved, taking the stance that they are being treated unfairly rather than considering that their views, though valid for them and others like them, and not valid for everyone.  But his petulant, childish stance on this matter demonstrates the extent to which the issues are emotional, i.e. “unconscious”, rather than rational.  And that is the issue with “embedded thinking,” those who are plagued with this malady have made an inordinate emotional (unconscious) investment in a vein of thought, ideology, which makes it impossible to reason with them.  They do not “think”, they are “thought.”  This makes me think of something a high school counselor told me one time, “Arguing with a teen ager is like wrestling with a pig:  You both get muddy and the pig likes it.”

Of course, I’m posed with a dilemma with this vein of “thought” I am sharing in that this “embedded thinking” is called “reality” and anyone who stands removed from this “embedded thinking” and criticizes it is also standing outside of “reality” and is therefore…ahem, cough, cough…nuts!  Well, in a sense this is true, but only in a sense.  “Embedded thinking” evolved because it gives the tribe the comfort necessary to go about the business of day-to-day life.  And we need those who will fulfill this God ordained task.  But my concern is that our investment in our “embedded thinking” could back off a little here and there and we would find that we could be a little more inclusive of those that we had been erstwhile dismissive of.  And “backing off” would not imperil our way of thinking but it would imperil our investment in it and, related to this, our investment in our self, or ego, and would be a step in the direction of getting over our self.  And I’m working on this myself!