Two Contrasts: History and Soul

Two Contrasts: History and Soul

            Man is still in his childhood; for he cannot respect an ideal which is not imposed against his will, nor can he find satisfaction in a good created by his own action. He is afraid of a universe that leaves him alone. Freedom appals him; he can apprehend in it nothing but tedium and desolation, so immature is he and so barren does he take himself to be. He has to imagine what the angels would say, so that his own good impulses (which create those angels) may gain in authority, and none of the dangers that surround his poor life make the least impression upon him until he hears that there are hobgoblins hiding in the wood. His moral life, to take shape at all, must appear to him in fantastic symbols. The history of these symbols is therefore the history of his soul. (Santayana, 1954:222-3 (1906)).

                Angelic intellect results in a paucity of the imagination. Condemned to walk the earth, to till it, to lay upon it and ultimately be buried within, we human beings might well imagine another kind of existence which would never stoop to simply being life alone. It has life, no doubt, but living it is not. And hearsay, whether it implies angels or demons, nymphs or goblins, does nothing to free us of our own poor imaginations. Nay, rather it provides their fuel in the face of both cosmos and freedom alike.

            Let us then take history and soul as our two contrasting epigones. The one betrays morality at every turn, the other is supposed to have ingested it whole; indeed, might be said to be its conception as a fetus is conceived and develops in the human womb. This womb is conscience, its child our better selfhood. Better than what? Superior to both tedium and desolation, which is, on a bad day, what the universe so free and so aloof looks like to the naked eye. The twinkling stars be damned, for their winks are a smug conspiracy of eternity which mocks and sneers and at the end of each night simply despairs that mortal consciousness the cosmos over – once again, for the heavens do not have favorites – will ever ascend to anything more than what it has already been. From Mahler to Sagan, this motif haunts us: ‘The firmament is forever blue… But Man, how long do you live?’ opens up the desolation – though never the tedium! – of The Song of the Earth. The artist asks us to contrast our own paltry existence with the very thing that reminds us thereof, and does so each night. In turn, the scientist warns us of the myriad of civilizations which, upon attaining a certain level of technology, promptly destroy themselves. Will humanity be the next? This is not a case of a much-reported ‘Jewish’ anxiety, ported into that Pauline and made ahistorical by living on, step by unutterable step, as an anti-historical force. From Marx through Husserl, Mahler and Freud, Sagan and Chomsky, the idea that their family backgrounds had anything to do with their accomplishments or outlooks on life is a piece of anti-Semitism at best, for anyone who is so accomplished has become so in part by shedding his life-chance variables; in a word, has chosen soul over history and thus engaged in the transformation of both.

            But this is precisely the question with which the rest of us are left, when confronted by either art or science: what of the contrast, even confrontation, between history and soul? Just as the conception of the sacred is said to be transcendent to history – it survives even the oceanic shifts associated with changing modes of production, for instance; and this without respect of course to any of its historical contents, which do not so survive – soul is an archetype, both in the Jungian sense of the term but more tellingly, in the yet wider linguistic sense of it being ‘archiphonemic’. On the way to this exalted status, it accedes to also being an apical ancestor, the unmoved mover which sits atop a certain kind of genealogical diagram, as if it generated the world from nothing. It is the local version of Godhead and it itself is divinity made worldly by being implanted in a mortal vessel. Like the sacred, the soul survives the end of this vehicle, which in the meanwhile, giving into both its brute senses and its brutish imagination, has betrayed its spirit and made soul nothing more than an admired prisoner, to be genuflected at but otherwise utterly ignored.

            In spite of our ‘childhood’, which in Santayana comes across more as childishness as expressed by beings who in fact do know better, soul asserts itself. In casual language, we hear it associated with a certain kind of feel or spirit in the arts; this or that ‘has soul’ or is soulful. We hear of it being blessed, both as a kind of rustic epithet – ‘the old bastard, bless his soul’ – as well as being in earnest and directed to a beloved other. Either way, we cut to the chase by its use. ‘Soul’ is meant to refer to the essence of one’s character, and thus pertains, indeed, even dictates, how such a character has expressed herself. Has she attended to her conscience, her ‘better self’, or has she betrayed it? Has she raised the soul of another upwards to compete with the imaginary angels or has she cast it down, to the penury of temptation and eventually soullessness? And while the childishness which too often guides us yet might imagine the judgment to come nonetheless, we also know better on that score that no one is after all keeping.

            As an archetype, soul is not supposed to have a history at all. Thus no accounting of it makes any ultimate sense. There is no score, beyond the nonexistence of the scorekeeper, and yet the game remains always and already afoot. What then of its purpose, its meaning, its ends? History the game, soul the player? History the narrative, soul the protagonist? History the meat, soul the bone? One could go on of course, but suffice to say that the essential contrast between these idealities, one the fullness of change and the other its fullest absence, is one between movement and presence, even existence and essence. And if we have learned by now that ‘consciousness is itself a social product’, then why not soul ‘itself? It would seem no serious slight to sign off on such a saying. Consciousness contains both history and soul insofar as the first is written and lived by we conscious beings and the second comes to be known through its oddly awry impingement upon the ethical aspect of consciousness; the conscience and its conscientiousness. One might suggest, with some effort at countervalence, that history also objectifies consciousness and soul makes it into a subjectivity. In fact, this is the better manner of understanding both their constitution and their confrontation.

            History is played out, not without consciousness but even so, ‘outside’ of it. I can read our shared history since I too have participated in it, but I cannot read your singular soul as mine own is always in the way. Just as I can never see the shadow figure of the schizo-affective who, in absence of most, even all, of the other salient archetypes, has retreated into the radical and existential doubt the shadow represents, simply because I have my own shadow that in turn, no one else can ever see, your soul forever remains invisible and can only be communicated through the translation my own makes of your conscience brought into history by conscious act and speech. We humans are distinct from one another just as we are separate from the cosmos at large. What makes us so is, perhaps surprisingly, not to be found in history after all but in the individuatedness of a perspectival consciousness which has, graciously or no, included soul in its wandering embrace. If history carries us along, we in turn do the same for soul. We, in fact, are its history as well as being its movement, its vehicle, its expression. In being so, my own life becomes the fulcrum that balances their autochthonous contrast. History pulls me along willingly; I am change and I desire to be so. Soul provides the existential weight that must be so pulled along; I am nonetheless that which changes and not the change itself.

            But if we wish to speak of species infancy, we should first acknowledge the history of this sensibility. For the Greeks, existence in history connoted as well as promoted a regression into a baser form, a return to infancy from being otherwise. For the Christians the infancy of Man was his existence entire, and we would experience maturity only by being freed of our mortal penance. But for the fin de siécle infancy was more of a promise than even a premise. Yes, we are a child-race – this sentiment can be found, though without rancor, in H.G. Wells’ 1903 address to the Royal Society, and has become a staple of science fiction in general from Sir Arthur Clarke to Star Trek – but the child is nevertheless the father of the man. Santayana is more critical than is the British Wells or even his American comrade in the history of consciousness, William James, but he is still hopeful. For Nietzsche, that other great pundit of the end of a culture, childishness was something to be overcome by the other dominant feature of infancy: child-like wonder.

            We understand, more or less, the history of the soul. We know these conceptions apart from one another and as contrasting forms twice over, as it were, for hovering about the soul’s own history is the question of the soul of history. At one glance, we might say that the soul of history is change itself, but the effort to identify change then becomes all in all. In the self, in society, in morality, in consciousness, even in that firmament ‘forever’ blue. The next step in development away from species infancy lies in our collective ability to understand the changes that are occurring even if our childish solace which selfishly hugs the soul only to itself fears now this and now that without reason and in ignorance of its own powers. The phantasmagoria of symbols which is the history of soul in form and indeed in history must no longer be taken for the future, which only comes into being bereft of mere symbology and instead takes up love’s perfect freedom. For if soul is the manner in which I love myself, history attains a higher love; that of the other at first, then the culture, then the species, then the cosmos. But in all of these portages, ethical and existential alike, soul historicizes itself and only thence frees itself from its self-love, which was after all the source of all fantasy in the first place.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the inter-disciplinary human sciences for over two decades.