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.

Between Two Worlds

Bartlett Island north of Tofino, BC. My first memories are from Wickanninnish Beach, Stubbs Island and Vargas, all to the south of this place. I miss them deeply and spiritually and return when I can.

Between Two Worlds

Travis Thomas: a case of microcosmic ‘culture flux’.

“Is it not better to use what thou hast, like a free man, than to long, like a slave, for what is not in thy power?” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. IX, 40).

“One of the great marvels of a number of human beings is their ability to shift from one form of freedom to another, when such a shift is desirable or necessary.” (Sorokin 1937 II:164).

            ‘Between two worlds’ is a phrase used by an Ahousaht elder to describe the condition of Travis Thomas, who was taken to Bartlett and Little Bartlett Islands in the Summer of 2018 and remains there to this day. The phrase connotes no mere material condition, though it speaks to the being who lives between nature and culture, or between the past and the present, and certainly Thomas is also living between these obverse worlds. But the deeper meaning of such a description is an existential one: it is applied to the being who finds him or herself between the realm of the physical and that of the spiritual. In cultures wherein the latter still has some suasion one can, in fact, find oneself ‘between’ in this deeper manner, as does the culture in flux more widely. But the enduring question is, does any culture today truly have access to a spiritual realm even if it believes that it does?

            A system of meaning, notes Sorokin, is one in which there are logical compatibilities within the culture and that these meanings are mutually interdependent (cf. 1937 IV:21). He juxtaposes the term ‘system’ with that of ‘congery’, in which the meanings thrown together preclude logical compatibility and appear to be but an admixture, a mélange, or yet worse, a malaise. In post-contact cultures, a common response to the shock of cross-cultural meaning-conflict has been ‘syncretisms’, which refer to a dialectical process generating a novel result; a contemporary and viable system is born out of elements of both old and new, obviating the previous and necessary flux between them. At a personal level, the hope that indigenous Wellness Centers, very much material places and not at all abstractions, will result in actual people maintaining a life-balance of both traditional and Euro-American elements. This may indeed be a practical outcome of their advent, including in Ahousaht itself. But symbolically, the plot thickens and we are unsure as to what outcomes might be expected. This is so because fundamentally, advanced social contract cosmology and contemporary technical-industrial capitalism conflict in every imaginable way.

            And the conflict does not begin with capital and its virtuoso of technique, its ruthless extraction of resources, its drive for profit and for the extension of markets. Long before such things were even in the imagination of Western Man the cosmology of pre-agrarian societies had vanished. It was first replaced throughout the fertile crescent and from Egypt all the way to China and beyond with systems of thought that placed the spiritual realm at a great distance from that worldly. Indeed, to mention the two of them in the same sentence might well be seen as heretical. The ‘worldly’ – a term still used by evangelicals as a negative epithet for so-called secular interests – realm was supposed to be merely a way-station or at most, a proving ground, along the soul’s journey to a higher form of being. Such ideas, much more historically recent than those that animated the traditional cultures of the BC Coast, have themselves been displaced. But it is the relatively brief length of time since they were dismantled by 17th century science and 18th century criticism, not to mention popular commentaries on events like the Lisbon earthquake etc., that calls into question the very anonymity of relationships in this our present day.

            It is this anonymity and the alienation that follows therefrom which is the source of most mental illness cross-culturally. The older ideas of spirit possession or more recently, naturalized gender bigotries – like hysteria, levelled in 1895 by Breuer and Freud, for instance, though in fairness Charcot took pains to note that hysteria could be found equally in both men and women – have fallen into the historical dustbin. The fashionable sensibility that many diseases of the mind can be traced to genetic sources is something I as a humanist have always found unconvincing given the dangers of reductionism inherent in all such neurobiological discourses. But how to call the shot when a person hailing from a culture whose own traditions in turn hail from a cosmic order not even one, but at least two metaphysics ago presents a rather different kind of problem. Here, alienation is something forced upon communities from without. It is a kind of existential ‘Jim Crow’ that gets internalized and thence acted upon. ‘Residential Schools’ – the very term is an evil euphemism akin to Concentration Camps, spanking, discipline, and the Einsatzgruppen (literally, merely ‘single or first movement groups’ or ‘deployment groups’) – were at the very heart of this enforcement for well over a century and a half. Now, a foul potpourri of variables enfeebles once vibrant and uncannily spiritual cultures for whom the division between this world and the other world was negligible if not nil.

            Indeed, the only way in which one could be ‘between two worlds’ within the tradition was to in fact be sick. It was the shaman’s job to track after the sick soul – the ‘soul-catcher’ is a wonderfully conceived (and aesthetic) object and its gloss would make a half-decent fantasy novel title to boot – and one hears of the ‘metaphor’ of a dark tunnel into which the intrepid healer would travel. On the West Coast, at the tunnel’s far and mysterious end, the puma awaited the departing soul. But she was canny to those whose time of transfiguration had not yet arrived. She might growl and send them back towards the realm of the people where the shaman could thence effect a cure. In a theatrical representation of this life and death dynamic, secret societies would initiate youth by sending them on vision quests and then work to return them from the spiritual realm into the villages of their birth. But birth and birthright are not the same thing, just as person and spirit are not. In this worldview, a personal birth is mere biography. It is one of an indefinite number of soul-cycles. It is the cycle itself that is each person’s birthright, gifted to those who have been born into late social contract cosmological systems. Today, the remnants of such systems worldwide face their imminent demise. The vast and dominant system of world-capital does not even believe that spirit exists, let alone anything more detailed ‘about’ its cosmic career.

            So ‘between two worlds’ today can mean, as suggested above, many related or unrelated things. In the case of Travis Thomas and no doubt many others, it means, from the outside, a person who is suffering delusions that so happen to not affect his physical skills and his memory of experience in wilderness conditions. But what does it mean to him?

            Ultimately, this is the question that is of the greatest interest for the rest of us, whatever cultural background we ourselves hail from. It is old hat that psychopathology places all those who experience the visionary into suspicion. Religious verve in general is a mark of at least a mild obsession and perhaps a projected narcissism if not worse. We can ask, forthrightly, why any God would harbor a human interest let alone an interest in a single person. A God is a God, after all. The mascot gods of the Levant, each ethnic or linguistic group possessing one of its own to the utter disregard of their neighbors’ beliefs – Yahweh was, interestingly, not unaware of His competition and made it clear not that these others were false so much as that His people shalt worship only Him; the very interdict implies that the other gods were just as real and could be believed in if one chose to break the local covenant – were as unlike to anything on the BC Coast as could be imagined. Across many languages and almost as many kinship systems, Raven was the most deeply felt Being. His wisdom was sought by all, and today we have a Canadian postage stamp bearing a work of art entitled ‘Children of Raven’, referring to these related peoples and cultures. Thus a child of Raven possesses a birthright to be a seeker of visions, if and when necessary or desirable, to use Sorokin’s terms. These visions are more than a window into another world, they are an expression of the human imagination and thus very much also one of human freedom. To simply lose them, forget them, or yet more strenuously, refuse or shun them, is to surrender not only to some more or less subtle neo-colonialism, it is to give up an integral part of human consciousness which animates to a great extent the history of the entire species.

            From the inside, then, from within the tradition and from within a mind that understands that self-same tradition, Travis Thomas is no longer in this world. He has become the ‘Bukwus’ or ‘wild man’, the interlocutor with the animal spirits and the settled people of the villages, the one who travels between the worlds but never actually rests in that liminal space itself. From the inside, he is not suffering from delusions, he is not addicted, he is not missed, he is not alienated. His suffering has transcended itself, as is the precise ethical purpose of the vision quest more generally. Our outsider questions cannot even be posed until he returns to the realm of culture only, the world of humans, and even then he may not be able to answer them. This is so because it is also part of the tradition that profound visionary experiences that involve existential transfiguration and perhaps as well the transformer beings should not be shared lest one loses their power and their insight.

            Wellness Centers aside, the deeper lesson of such cases for the rest of us has to do with the condition of our spirits; their merit, their strength, their wisdom and their character. Do we yet possess them or have we allowed ourselves to be dispossessed of them through the chicanery of politics, the acid fever of consumerism, the shallow shell of popular entertainment, all in an unmasked mockery of authentic religious belief? Thomas is pushing a point upon us, in a radical and even courageous manner, consciously or no: that we should reconsider our patent categories of mental and spiritual health and even what we patently pretend to know about existence proper, about life and death alike. If we wonder only at the wonderful, if we are empowered only by the powerful, if we seek beauty in the beautiful alone, then we are entirely missing that point.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of 38 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, religion and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.