in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Return of the Soul

Finally, I am pleased to announce that after three years of waiting 'The Pursuit of the Soul' will be published on 25th February by T & T Clark. I want to thank all at T & T Clark and Bloomsbury for working so hard to make this happen. We shall be having an official book-launch on 6th September at St Mary's including a presentation from the renowned Australian analyst and critic, David Tacey. However, in the meantime, I shall be presenting a seminar at the Marylebone Centre for Health and Healing this Wednesday evening on some of the main themes of the book. Details of this are on an earlier post. By way of a taster here are some of the key elements of 'soul language' with which I conclude both my book and the talk on Wednesday...

1. A Way of Seeing

Following Wittgenstein, soul-work can be described as a ‘way of seeing’ that releases liberating perspectives in our day-to-day existence. In Hillman’s words:


By soul, I mean, first of all, a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint towards things rather than a thing itself. (RVP:x)


What I learn from Wittgenstein is that our grammar suggests that ‘the soul’ is an object, a little furry beast if you like, that we are all on the hunt to get. Philosophy, he writes (PI 109) is ‘a battle against the bewitchment of our understanding through the medium of our language’ (ein Kampf gegen die Verhexung unsres Verstandes durch die Mittel unserer Sprache). Rather than an entity soul is a perspective. Essentially a transcendental perspective on our selves.

As well as his critique of the ‘over-spiritualization’ of the self, Hillman, was an equally trenchant critic of the over-scientism and reductionism within contemporary approaches to the psyche. The past few decades, since Hillman started his writing, have seen a marked reduction in the significance of the spiritual and religious content of the psychological therapies. The same cannot be said for the empirical and pseudo-scientific approach. Indeed, in many respects, with the rise of quasi-neurological ‘explanations’ and ‘interpretations’ of the mind it seems as though this approach may have reached its zenith in recent years. Along with Wittgenstein, Hillman had a justifiable and deep-seated suspicion of the over-idolisation of psychology as a ‘science of the mind’ and was every bit as trenchant as Wittgenstein in challenging the unquestioning acceptance of this position. His own approach was to advocate a ‘third path’ between reductionism and idealism, theology and science, which gave him, he believed, the right to challenge scientific and medical models of psychology, especially psycho-pathology, for:

The science fantasy with its reliance upon objectivity, technology, verification, measurement, and progress – in short, its necessary literalism – is less a means for examining the psyche than for examining science. (RVP:169)

Thus the work of the analyst, pastor or care-worker, is to cultivate the ‘third position’ of the soul/ From this alert ambiguity the soul-maker helps us attune ourselves to the transcendent by drawing attention to our responses to the immanent. Uniquely, the soul-maker recognises the human person as the locus of intersection of the transcendent and immanent.


2. The Path of Unknowing

At the heart of the soul-project lies an essential unknowing. Hillman termed the Freudian desire to replace ‘It’ with ‘I’ the ‘strip mining of the psyche’ (IV:46) and his counter-move suggests an approach to the ‘unknown thing’ that gives space for the unconscious to breathe. In this respect the apophatic unknowing of the soul is simply letting the conscious know its place while the unconscious figurations reassert themselves. ‘Maybe’, suggests Hillman, ‘they know best what is relevant to the conscious personality, rather than the conscious personality’ (IV:46). Therefore contemporary soul-making will require as much ‘unknowing’ as it does ‘knowing’. This, of course, is nothing new to the Christian mystical tradition which has always placed ‘unknowing’ at the centre of its search for the self.

          Adopting a phrase of the 19th Century English poet, John Keats, some recent commentators in the tradition of psychotherapy and counselling talk of this attribute as the need for ‘negative capablility’ in our pastoral interactions with others. Keats used the term to specify a key attribute of the poet which makes a person: ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ (Keats 1970:43).Robert French, a contemporary commentator, writes:


‘Thus, Keats’s poet is ‘related’ to the therapist, and indeed to many other ‘family members’: mother, teacher, priest, consultant, manager – anyone, perhaps, whose role involves responsibility for others. What links them is this ‘disposition of indifference’, which Pines called ‘aeolian’ after the aeolian harp: ‘ to show how the therapist’s mind can be stirred by the communication of the patient, and how, unselfconsciously, the therapist finds himself responding in depth to the patient’s hidden meanings’’ (French 2000:3)


This attitude of ‘unknowing’ opens up new possibilities in our engagements with the people we care for. The British Object Relations analyst, Wilfred Bion, was aware of Keats’s dictum and tried to put it into practice in his interactions with clients saying:


‘Discard your memory; discard the future tense of our desire; forget them both, both what you knew and what you want, to leave space for a new idea.’ (Bion 1980:11)


He suggested we must have the courage and humility to step into this ‘space of unknowing’ when we engage with others. A place that requires us to put aside our memories, our need to control, our need to define – all the whirring chatter of the ‘monkey mind’ – and allow ourselves to be present for the other before us:


‘When we are in the office with a patient we have to dare to rest. It is difficult to see what is at all frightening about that, but it is. It is difficult to remain quiet and let the patient have a chance to say  whatever he or she has to say. It is frightening for the patient – and the patient hates it. We are under constant pressure to say something, to admit that we are doctors or psychoanalysts or social workers to supply some box into which we can be put complete with a label.’ (Bion 1980:11)


As professional carers there is a pressure to be ‘the expert’ or the ‘wise one’ whereas often what is required is for us to have the humility to divest ourselves of our power position. To do this may challenge our very selves as well as our roles and make us question again why we do the work we do.


3. Ambiguity and Paradox

The contemporary soul-maker must live in the realm of ambiguity that is the soul’s true home. Whether with a client, facing a dream or working on the self, the demands of the soul require an openness to the ambiguity that lies at the heart of the human personality. Imagination, for Hillman, becomes the place where we uniquely play with the self in its efforts to overcome the straightjacket of the post-Cartesian ‘I’. For him, the world of Cartesian dualism allows ‘no space for the intermediate, ambiguous and metaphorical’ (RVP:xii). Rather it is the place inhabited by living subjects and dead objects. All affect is removed from the world around us. In Hillman’s writing, following as we have seen Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists, this place of ambiguity will become populated by the world of ‘archetype’ and ‘daemones’. For Christian writers such as Stein (following Augustine and Aquinas) the ambiguity of the self is held in the tension of the Trinity, where Christ becomes the unity of apperception for the individual believer. The paradox of the Trinitarian vision thus reflects the paradox that lies at the heart of human personhood.


4. The Symbolic, Creative and Artistic

With Rank we saw that creativity must play a decisive role in any future ‘soul-psychology’. Likewise, with Hillman we see the importance he attached, as a post-Jungian, to the role of imagination and the symbolic. As he puts it in Revisioning Psychology:


Psychological faith begins in the love of images, and it flows mainly through the shapes of persons in reveries, fantasies, reflections and imaginations... (the ego’s) trust is in the imagination as the only uncontrovertible reality, directly presented, immediately felt. (RVP:50)


For analysis goes on in the soul’s imagination and not just in the clinic for we let imagination speak for itself without interpretation. Or as my training analyst, Hymie Wyse, used to put it, in analysis the analyst must pray: ‘Lead us not into interpretation!’ The soul/psyche for Hillman is at root imaginal and myth is in the natural discourse of the soul. In an earlier work (Tyler 2013a) I stressed the links between the postmodern Jungian view of the symbolic with the premodern medieval understanding of the symbol. As a great medievalist/renaissance man, Hillman, like his mentor Jung, recognises the symbolic nature of the psyche and how the psyche really lives in the realm of the symbolic and mythic, for ‘the imaginal does not explain, myths are not explanations’. As such the symbolic utterings of the soul ‘are bound to ritual happenings; they are stories, as our fantasies are, which project us into participation with the phenomena they tell about so that the need for explanation falls away’ (MA:202). Hillman is here, I believe, pointing out an essential quality of ‘soul-language’ – that is, that it is a ‘performative’ rather than an ‘informative’ language (Tyler 2011).

For Hillman the symbolic is indicative of that mode of consciousness that ‘recognises all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical’ experienced through ‘reflective speculation, dream, image and fantasy’ (RVP:x). The symbolic sources of the soul thus lie very close to the sources of creative and artistic endeavour and thus the pursuit of the soul will often manifest itself through these means.


5. The Relational and Libidinal

Soul-making is at heart a relational process. In Rank’s words, analysis is ‘an art of love’ and the relationship between the soul-seeker and soul-maker is at the heart of the matter. The Platonic tradition always emphasised the role of eros in this relationship. In contrast to Hillman, who sees the Christian tradition as suppressing the role of eros, I would rather argue that thinkers as diverse as Merton, Stein and Wittgenstein present an embodied Christian view of the self that maintains the transcendent through relationship with the bodily and libidinal. The soul is found not in flight from the body but in the very embrace of its ambiguity and libido. This is not surprising. For, despite Augustine’s famous suspicion of ‘concupiscence’, there were sufficient alternative (neo-Platonic) strands of early Christian anthropology in writers such as Evagrius and Origen to preserve alternative narratives of the soul in the Christian tradition. As I have demonstrated elsewhere (Tyler 2011), the medieval traditions of the theologia mystica with their Dionysian emphasis were sufficient to keep this tradition alive. Despite Hillman’s caricature of Christianity as a life-denying and anti-libidinal locus (and he is of course not alone here) I would argue that this is far from the case and there are sufficient traces of this alternative relational and libidinal anthropology in the Christian tradition to allow a future Christian anthropology, open to the possibilities of the libidinal, to flourish. The future of the soul lies in the libidinal and relational. 


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