Mar 28, 2014

Metaphysical Solace

Oedipe et Antigone, by Charles Jalabert

In writing about Attic tragedy, Nietzsche states,
The metaphysical solace which, I wish to suggest, we derive from every true tragedy, the solace that in the ground of things, and despite all changing appearances, life is indestructibly mighty and pleasurable, this solace appears with palpable clarity in the chorus of satyrs, a chorus of natural beings whose life goes on ineradicably behind and beyond all civilization, as it were, and who remain eternally the same despite all the changes of generations and in the history of nations (Nietzsche 39).
The "metaphysical solace" Nietzsche speaks of, is the human experience that is at the very ground of life, an experience that nullifies those things we usually consider as bringing well-being to a person, such as wealth and success. The phrase is misnamed because it really has nothing at all to do with the "metaphysical," taken to mean, "the supernatural or incorporeal." The solace Nietzsche is referring to here is perfectly natural and requires no external world or transcendent deity to produce it. 

Early in his career, Nietzsche sought after metaphysical solace in the "revitalization of myth and activation of the myth-building potential of consciousness" (Safranski 86), as opposed to the attempts to find metaphysical solace in religion, philosophical idealism, or the quest for knowledge, as in science. To these latter solace-seekers, Nature needs to be corrected or compensated for in some way. Somehow, it is not sufficiently equipped to bring about the state of solaciousness we are discussing. But in Nietzsche's mind, solace is to be derived solely from Nature in the form of the tragic tension that emerges from the conflict between Apollinian and Dionysian forces.

The satyr, half-man, half-goat stands in stark opposition to the Apollonian man. The satyr is a carefree being, totally devoid of the mundane worries of life. He knows how to have a good time. He doesn't concern himself with bills, mortgages, a job, etc. The natural life is all he knows. We would do well to allow some of this attitude into our own lives. The movement of Bohemianism, as well as the Beat movement, was in tune with the satyr.

Even though we value life and the world for its good things, Nature is notorious for being, at times, unjust, unfair, and filled with misery. Life itself is tragic and we are all tragic characters. We all suffer. As the Buddha said, the essence of life is suffering. Most attempt to transcend the world through religion, philosophy, drugs, sex, even suicide, but life is what it is.

Since the time of Socrates, our world has been dominated by, and an overemphasis placed upon, the forces of Apollo. The Dionysian forces of our world have been suppressed, usually by social viewpoints that consider these as sinful, evil, or just uncivilized. Apollo, of course, is the god of order, rationality, and the visual arts. Dionysus is the god of wine, ecstasy, the fertility of nature, and music. These two powers are in perpetual conflict, not only within our world, but within ourselves. Nietzsche believed that Attic tragedy was the synthesis of these forces.

We have emphasized Apollo for so long that it is very difficult for us to embrace Dionysus, especially if we have been brought up in Christianity, truly an Apollonian religion if there ever was one. Christ is light, just as Apollo is the god of the Sun. In I John 1:5, the Apostle states, "This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (KJV). This is a one-sided understanding of reality, and is the typical Western viewpoint. It is Apollonian to the core.

The metaphysical solace Nietzsche refers to is the primordial experience of unity. It is a unity of the contrary forces of Nature that makes our lives worth living. It is naive to ignore one side of reality, as many times we do in our orderly, capitalist, consumer-driven world. Under the streets of our very civilized and ordered societies, the earth is rumbling. The cthonic forces of Nature, having been repressed for so long, seek an outlet. If Apollo and Dionysus cannot be reconciled in some way, as Sophocles and Aeschylus did when they wrote their tragedies, the unfettered powers of the Underworld will be unleashed on the world, and in the lives of individuals.

The way to solace is not the avoidance of suffering, but the phenomenological embracing of Nature. It is not the embracing of pie-in-the-sky idealism or social Utopianism. It is not waiting until we get to heaven. A wonderful life awaits us here in this world now. The understanding that there are contrary forces within all of Nature, and that they require equal recognition, will foster new imagination and birth new creations.



Works Cited

Nietzsche, F.W. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Ronald Speirs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Safranksi, Rüdiger. Nietzsche, a Philosophical Biography. Tr. Shelley Frisch. New York: Norton, 2002.

Mar 23, 2014

Danger Lurks Below


The supreme danger which threatens individuals as well as whole nations is a psychic danger (Jung 590 ).
We usually think of the unconscious mind as being the source of creativity and blessing for our lives. We have been taught that if we could only become more conscious of what lies in the depths below, we would become more balanced and whole. This is true to a certain extent, but there is a ferociousness in the dark abyss of the unconscious that can rip us to shreds. And this is not the case for individuals only. Human societies are also subject to the volcanic, eruptive fury of the unconscious. We have seen this time and time again throughout history. There is no better example than Hitler and the Holocaust in the 20th century. The once glorious hope of The Enlightenment that Reason would triumph over the irrationality of mankind and bring us to a new age of peace and prosperity has been trampled under by the awful implements of war and atrocity. And for the individual seeking individuation, the notion of a life filled only with goodness and well-being has been shown to be unattainable and naive.

According to Carl Jung,
Reason has proved itself completely powerless, precisely because its arguments have an effect only on the conscious mind and not on the unconscious. The great­est danger of all comes from the masses, in whom the effects of the unconscious pile up cumulatively and the reasonableness of the conscious mind is stifled. Every mass organization is a latent danger just as much as a heap of dynamite is. It lets loose effects which no man wants and no man can stop. It is therefore in the highest degree desirable that a knowledge of psychology should spread so that men can understand the source of the supreme dangers that threaten them. Not by arming to the teeth, each for itself, can the nations defend themselves in the long run from the frightful catastrophes of modern war. The heaping up of arms is itself a call to war. Rather must they recognize those psychic conditions under which the unconscious bursts the dykes of consciousness and overwhelms it (ibid.).
For precisely this reason, humanity has attempted to create certain "alleviating intermediaries" (Safranski) to filter the irruptions of the unconscious into the conscious mind. Yes, these irruptions on a mass scale can come in the form of wars, pandemics, and societal atrocities, and, on an individual level, psychoses and infirmities. The ancients seemed to know more than modern man about creating protections against the ravages of the unconscious. They accomplished this through myth, music, and art. With the advent of The Enlightenment, western man in particular began to view these as mere entertainment. The word, "myth," even came to mean, in modern parlance, "delusion." Myth, music, and art are innate, natural filters that mitigate the awesome terrors of the abyss we call the unconscious mind. Humans are hard-wired, so to speak, to utilize these to shield the conscious mind from the unconscious.

Under the category of myth, I would place religion. Religious ritual is one of the most powerful ways ever devised by man to shield the mind from the unconscious. For millennia, humans have engaged in religious ritual, probably unaware of its protective powers. The Catholic Mass was one of the most effective means of warding off the evils that lie in wait to snatch one's mind away, dragging it down into the Underworld, just as Persephone was dragged down by Hades into the realm of shades. There is something about ritual that most do not understand because of our age of "rationality" and demythologization. Those who still practice the old religions have great understanding of the protective powers of ritual. Typically, Christians, especially Protestants, do not believe or understand this. Most reject imaginal and mythological thinking. Some Catholics and Orthodox still realize it, but this knowledge is waning. Our culture, largely based on science and technology, rejects such thinking. The masses have been conditioned to think this way, but the danger still lurks in the unconscious. The more we ignore it, the more perilous it becomes.

Jung taught us that symbols can be worn out, become obsolete and ineffective. For this reason, much of Christianity has become an ineffective filter for our experiences. We need fresh, new myths that will screen our minds from the damaging effects of the dark unconscious. We need new artistic and musical geniuses that will bestow upon us gifts for the good of the species. We need imagination and creativity!

Art cannot be precisely defined. But, as an attempt to do so, art is unconsciousness made conscious. It is myth made visual, just as music is myth made aural. Art and music come about as close to a universal language as one can get. Great works of art and music are examples of "alleviating intermediaries" placed between the conscious mind and the dark fury of the unconscious to filter unconsciousness to the point where we can, first of all, bear it psychologically, and then benefit from it.


Works Cited

Jung, C. G. The Symbolic Life. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. (Vol. 18) (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). Princeton: Princeton, 1976.

Safranksi, Rüdiger. Nietzsche, a Philosophical Biography. Tr. Shelley Frisch. New York: Norton, 2002.

Jan 17, 2014

Alchemy: Raven's Head

Nigredo - dal manoscritto Viatorium spagyricum, Herbrandt Jamsthaler, (1625)
In the "furnace of the cross" and in the fire, says the "Aquarium sapientum," "man, like the earthly gold, attains to the true black Raven's Head; that is, he is utterly disfigured and is held in derision by the world (Jung 353)...
There is much more to be said about black than what has been said. The blacker the black, the whiter the white will be. The blackest black provides the most fertile incubator for transmutation. It is said by the alchemists to be as a raven's head (caput corvi). It is not that black is to be identified with literally, as we see in suicides; it is symbol, image. Remember, all is image.
The raven is a harbinger of death, the dying of the common, the old ways, the old paradigm. From this thickest of blackness, a diamond will be born. Many people believe that diamonds are formed from coal. This, however, is a popular misconception. Geologist, Hobart King, says the majority of the world's "diamonds...were formed in the mantle and delivered to the surface by deep-source volcanic eruptions" (Hobart King, How Do Diamonds Form?). Creation takes place deep within the earth's mantle, where black is absolutely black, where carbon material is pulverized beneath the continental plates, some ninety miles below the earth's surface. The temperatures there reach at least 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. After being ground to the blackest powder, the earth creates these wondrous stones and thrusts them back up to the surface. As above, so below. This is a powerful image of how the Nigredo works within the human psyche. At times, our lives are thrust deep into the unfathomable depths of the Underworld, where we are crushed, pulverized, and annihilated until we are black as the raven's head.

 The Nigredo is the ultimate process of deconstruction. Where health once was, now there is only sickness; where happiness and meaningfulness once were, now there is only intense melancholia and nihilism. The Latin word, nihil, literally means "nothing." One becomes as nothing when one encounters the raven. Where life once was, now there is only death. James Hillman writes, "Like a black hole, it sucks into it and makes vanish the fundamental security structures of Western consciousness" (Hillman 1626). Furthermore,
Black breaks the paradigm; it dissolves whatever we rely upon as real and dear. Its negative force deprives consciousness of its dependable and comforting notions of goodness. If knowledge be the good, then black confuses it with clouds of unknowing...(ibid.).
The purpose of the Nigredo is to plant us firmly in the darkness and in the depths of the Underworld. This prepares us for the next stage of transmutation.


Works Cited

Hillman, James. Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman
Volume 5: Alchemical Psychology, Kindle edition. Dallas: Spring, 2013.

Jung, C.G. Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry Into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy. trans, R.F.C. Hull. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 14. Princeton: Princeton, 1963.

Jan 14, 2014

Alchemy: Nigredo

Only in a physically reduced worldview, a worldview reduced to and by physics, can black be called a non-color, an absence of color, a deprivation of light (Hillman 1553).
What is it in the human psyche that views the color black as somehow evil? We associate black with evil, with death, with the morbid and the macabre. Think of how many examples there are in our culture, our language, our phrases, and our art of black representing the negative, the corrupt, the hideous, and the malevolent. We contrast it with the purity and holiness of the color white since white represent the white light of God and all his holiness. The properties we ascribe to white are absent in black. Black ends up being the privation of white, as the Church Fathers believed evil to be the privation of good.

In his book, Alchemical Psychology, James Hillman says the distinction between the two colors arose in the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, the so-called Age of Light, where Reason was also coupled with the color white (ibid.). Hillman makes a stunning statement concerning European and American racism that, I must admit, had never really registered with me before:
Northern European and American racism may have begun in the moralization of color terms. Long before any English-speaking adventurer touched the shores of West Africa, fifteenth-century meanings of “black” included: “deeply stained with dirt; soiled; foul; malignant, atrocious, horrible, wicked; disastrous, baneful, sinister … ” When the first English-speaking sailors spied natives on West African shores, they called these people “black" (ibid.).
Why else would this have occurred, if not for the moralization of a color that appears many times in Nature? But why would the disdain for the color black ever arise in the first place? Apparently, the first time the word, "white," was used to describe an ethnic group was in 1604, according to Hillman (ibid.). By this time, sailors had already traveled to what they later called  the "dark continent" and had attached all the stigma that had been linked with black to the inhabitants they met there.

 But this phenomenon was not unique to Western culture. 
Disdain for black is not only contemporary, Western, and English. The color black in the Greek world, and in African languages also, carried meanings contrasting with white and red, and included not only the fertility of the earth and the mystery of the underworld, but also disease, suffering, labor, sorcery, and bad luck (ibid.).
Colors have always had symbolic significance in human cultures, but when white became associated with Caucasian Christianity, then those that didn't fit into this group became laden with assumptions of evil, dishonesty, and disgust.

This is the working of a a very ancient archetype. Undoubtedly, unconsciousness is associated with black and consciousness with white, at least for the civilization of the past six to eight thousand years. It is indelibly etched in the human psyche. It is deeply connected to Nature, to the rising and setting of the Sun, day and night. We wake, we sleep. And sometimes we sleep the blackest of sleep, death. Death is the ultimate unconsciousness. 

In alchemy, black (nigredo) is the first stage in the magnum opus. The nigredo state is accomplished by work; it is not the original state of the soul, the prima materia. It is something that one has come to, and is a signal that one is ready to begin the journey. Just as coal has been worked upon by Nature to produce its black state, so is the nigredo soul a metamorphosis in progress. To get to this black condition, the soul has been working. It is in this condition that the real process begins.

How does one get to the nigredo state? In the language of alchemy, it is brought on by putrefactio and mortificatio, putrefaction and mortification. The original alchemical substances are subjected to these two processes to produce a blackened mass lacking all cohesion. Putrefaction is falling apart, decomposing. Mortification is a grinding down into smaller and smaller particles, to overwhelmingly punish and destroy. These two processes speak to the total breakdown of anything that is solid in one's life. This is the soul pathologizing. It is a necessary step, even initiatory, that will eventually bring the gleam of gold to the soul. Hillman writes,
We can begin to see – through a glass darkly – why the color black is condemned to be a “non-color.” It carries the meanings of the random and the formless. Like a black hole, it sucks into it and makes vanish the fundamental security structures of Western consciousness. By absenting color, black prevents phenomena from presenting their virtues. Black’s deconstruction of any positivity – experienced as doubt, negative thinking, suspicion, undoing, valuelessness – explains why the nigredo is necessary to every paradigm shift (Hillman 1626).
Moreover, the nigredo state corresponds to Nietzsche's assertion that nihilism is a necessary state one must arrive at before transformation is possible. I wrote about this recently in Nihilism as a Precursor to Transformation. The breakdown of all meaning is without a doubt one of the best examples of the nigredo. The soul brings one to this place of brokenness for a very good reason. In the blackest depths of the earth are where diamonds are born.


Hillman, James. Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman
Volume 5: Alchemical Psychology, Kindle edition. Dallas: Spring, 2013. 

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