December Songs

"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Category: Essays

Soul to Self: Trial of Rats

 

A Historical Divide

We live on the other side of a historic divide.  This divide is most obvious when we, of the privileged industrialized world, consider the physical, material conditions of our lives: indoor plumbing, central heating and cooling, refrigeration, cars-trains-airplanes, medical wonders, foods from faraway places at our fingertips.  The list is endless and startling when viewed from the conditions that have marked human life for most of our history.  These changes, so visible and profound, are tangible and easily apprehended.  No one needs convincing that we live on the other side of a great material divide.  But these changes are tethered to other, less visible, cultural, societal and social changes: in the forms of government; the organizing laws that provide structure to human exchange; the growth and modes of ordering of urban life; education, literacy and schooling; business, markets and economics.  These changes pervade every corner of human action and exchange.

Another, even less visible, but no less profound transformation is how we inhabit ourselves.  The most concrete expression of this change is the emergence and influence of the discipline of psychology; discipline here meaning scientific discipline.  It is a watershed moment when the analytical, skeptical, empirical gaze of science is turned from the material world of galaxies and stars to the subjective experience of our own psyche.  This turn was long in coming and not easily achieved, requiring that we wrench ourselves free from the moorings that provided stability for many centuries.  Thus, the inwardness of the soul, embedded and buttressed by a world whose social, public, and institutional axes were theologically organized, is supplanted by the self, which emerges within  secular, material, scientific coordinates. 1

The failure to grasp the historical basis of the modern self can result in the assumption that the basic features of the self are independent, timeless and “placeless” components of a universal human psyche.  But time and place, history and context, matter.  Indeed, they are formative.  This history, then, is not simply useful as background information, but is evidence that how we organize and experience our inner world is intimately connected to how our sociocultural lives are organized; that the context-free psyche often presumed by psychological science is, itself, context dependent.

I will offer several posts that explore  this transformation of inwardness from soul and self. This  does not imply that the historical movement occurred through the simple substitution of self for soul, nor does it presume a dichotomous conflict between religion and science.  Human history does not yield to such simplicities.  Nor does it presuppose that many today do not deeply, devotionally give ultimate significance to the soul.  Indeed, many do.  But they do so in a world inverted: heresy is not a heinous crime punishable by public, state sanctioned torture and execution.  Rather, the soul is nurtured in the privacy and shadows of one’s personal life.  These posts exploring the journey from soul to self, then, are meant to illuminate the dramatically altered state of our consciousness.

We can never, fully, bring to life the ruins and runes left to us by the past.  The past is always read through the lens of the present, and this is especially difficult when the focus is the experience of our inner life.  Our contemporary psychological self is so naively a part of ourselves, so given and transparent, that it is difficult to conceive otherwise.  The past is a foreign country.  Overcoming the barriers and biases to gain entry is not easy, or completely possible. The trial of rats, however, offers a unique vantage point for appreciating the seamless union of  the soul, the society, and the cosmos in the time before the onset of the age of the self.

    Trial of Rats

 

   

GUILTY!

The year is 1522, in Autun, France.  Survival is precarious, crops and weather are unpredictable, and pestilence and starvation a pressing reality.  Amidst this uncertainty, the town is visited by a plaque of rats.  The threat to the community is so severe that the municipal authorities seek to prosecute the rats, issuing a summons that the rats appear in court.  They do not.  The rats are represented by official legal counsel, who argues that most of the defendants live in the countryside and, thus, likely unaware of the summons.  The court, in response, issues a second summons which is read aloud in the churches in the surrounding countryside.  Again, the rats fail to appear.  Their attorney contends that the public reading also alerted their mortal enemy, the cats, making the journey to court too dangerous.  And so it went…for eight years.  Eventually, the rats were convicted, condemned, and excommunicated.2

This trial, and the many others like it, may appear confusing, shocking, even humorous to us moderns, but it obviously was a serious undertaking.  The full weight and formal rituals of communal justice was brought to bear on a vital issue threatening their community.  We cannot patronize our forbearers by simply dismissing this trial as a product of simplemindedness.  They were not idiots.  This example jars our sensibilities and thereby beckons us, offering a portal into the foreign country of the past.  Two words help us gain a foothold in this alien terrain:

  1. Enchanted. The medieval world has been described by many as enchanted; a world infused with magical and supernatural powers.  The root of the word is “to chant,” or sing, and harkens to the capacity for music and song to enthrall, to captivate our spirit, to charm, spellbind and bewitch.
  2. Inspirited. The world is alive, possessing, at its core, animating spirits that give movement, meaning, purpose and character not just to humans, animals and plants, but to all things in the cosmos.  Indeed, one of the principle aims of alchemy, the material “science” of this era, was to extract from matter the anima mundi; the primal spirit or soul of the cosmos.

This enchanted, inspirited cosmos, pervaded by magic and supernatural powers and populated with hosts of strange, dangerous, threatening, helpful and inexplicable spirits, is a deeply unsettling place.  One the one hand, it shares basic properties of intentionality, purpose, will, and desire that we are familiar with in ourselves.  On the other hand, it is a dangerous, capricious, unfathomably powerful, personally directed, oppressively present reality that can crush us at any moment.  The sense of vulnerability is further heightened by abject poverty, the constant threat of starvation, illness, injury, disease and death, and the tipping point for survival rests on the caprice of weather, plague, fertility, and livestock.  Constant vigilance is thus required.  And vigilance there was:  Magic rituals were necessary before planting, plowing and harvesting; houses required the foundation to be consecrated by clergy and protected by magical charms; weather rituals helped ensure crop production; animals and livestock were subjected to blessings and curses; fertility rites and practices were required to ensure healthy offspring. Communal celebratory rituals, feasts, and pageants were held during the cycle of the seasons to ensure healthy crops and good harvests; childbirth, marriage and death each had their ceremonies to consecrate and protect against malevolent forces that threaten mental and spiritual well-being.

No important aspect of life was without its magical means of influence and control.

In this inspirited world, nothing happens randomly or fortuitously—everything has a reason.  Those reasons can,  potentially, be divined, and the future and our fate can, possibly, be influenced.3  The causal nexus of this cosmos is most certainly not an impersonal, blind and indifferent, billiard-ball material causality.  Rather, the world innately possesses meaning; all things, all thoughts, all actions are entangled in a web of meaningful influence.  The cosmos offers up portents, omens, and signs whose meanings hold great significance for our personal and collective fate.  This inspirited world, in turn, participates and responds to enchantments, to incantations, rituals and rites.  Consider the power of words: A specific utterance by the right person in power at the right place and time can send an army on the march, to great destructive consequence.  The entire cosmos is so ordered.

Individuals do not seek meaning in an indifferent universe; meaning is, rather, imposed. Personal thoughts and private experiences are coupled with the happenings in the greater world.  Omens, amulets, holy water, sacred relics—the entire inspirited world radiates influence, and unbeknownst to us, can overtake us, seize our wishes and will.  The boundary between ourselves and the cosmos is porous.  Possession by alien spirits is a legitimate fear and we must take caution, heed what we say, do, and think, lest we become prey to the intrusive influence of unseen, yet overwhelming powerful forces.  We are never alone, even in our thoughts, in this spirit-pervaded, enchanted world.

This cosmos is also fundamentally moral.  Satanic forces of destruction are aligned against God’s benevolence and the focal point of this titanic struggle is the eternal fate of our soul.  Demonic allure, temptation, and assault threaten at every turn.  The single biggest mistake, which will damn us to everlasting Hell, is to presume that, in the face of such powerful, supernatural malevolence, we can make our own way in the world, can rely on our own will and wile, be self-reliant.  Augustine, who shaped medieval Christian theology and practice, offers this advice: “Try to build yourself up, and you build ruin”. 4  Only God’s grace can save us, and the hard route to that grace must pass through humility, surrender, and acknowledgement of our unworthiness.

While our soul’s fate is profoundly personal, our plight is not solitary.  The Church stands between us and God, sanctified to draw down heavenly powers, channeled through ritual, incantation and relics, to combat the forces of darkness and evil; to provide opportunities for grace and forgiveness; and to offer sacraments for personal salvation.  The Church is the hub of spiritual power that extends to all official, organizing structures of society, from legal courts to royal crown, and together they stand as a bulwark against the flood-tide of evil that threatens not only individuals, but the entire community.

The maladies of human life were understood as a complex relation between body and spirit.  “Routine” illnesses were often treated as an affliction of the body, caused by an imbalance of humours; an ill wind bringing dirt and disease, the foul airs of urban life; or an unfortunate conjunction of moon and stars.  Treatments were usually provided by local healers who offered folk remedies of potions, ointments, and elixirs with an admixture of rituals, incantations, and appeals to supernatural powers.  Failure of treatment, or strange and disturbing symptoms, suggested affliction of the spirit requiring treatment in kind: prayers, confession, penitence, petition of saints, and also, simple resignation to one’s fate, as illness is God’s punishment for one’s sins.  More diabolical illness, including madness, required more extreme measures, such as exorcism, and plagues and pestilence were viewed as afflictions visited on the entire community requiring Church sanctioned, communal responses.5

Let us now return to the trial of the Autun rats.  The community was confronted with an infestation that threatened their crops, their health, their survival.  Evil forces were clearly at work—for what other explanation could there be?  One need look no further than the Bible, the word of God, to see examples of demonic spirits inhabiting snakes, pigs and other animals, not to mention people.  This affliction of rats was, obviously, evil let loose against the community, requiring a communal response of the highest order.  The decree of the court, which was closely aligned and working in concert with the Church, was a sanctified writ that spoke most directly to any spirits who might hear it and especially those to whom it was directed.  Failure to respond is not evidence that it is fundamentally impossible for the spirit-possessed rats to comprehend, but is a failure to either not to have heard it, or a willful refusal to comply.  Following official court protocol is necessary, for only then can the official powers of the court be legitimately enacted.  And the most damning injunction that can be invoked is spiritual; condemnation and excommunication.

The trial of animals is an understandable response to a haunted world of spirits and demons, where our earthly existence is tenuous and our eternal fate is precarious, huddled as we are with other lost souls who are tossed in a violent struggle of cosmic scope and supernatural power.  Demons that stalk our inner life and plague the outer world are adjudicated and combatted through the divinely sanctioned power of the Church-government.The trial is a feeble effort to exert a measure of control in an inexplicable and overwhelming cosmos.

 

 

Past-in-the-Present

Genealogy

Genealogy has been a mystery to me. Why do so many obsess over their genealogical tree, trying to get the most complete and extensive record going as far back as possible? To claim being a 4th cousin to a distant relative who sailed on the Mayflower? To be dubbed a “Daughter of the Revolution’? A relative sent me a compendium of my ancestors, pages long, of the names of strangers in a geometric regress into the long ago past. It was as impersonal as the list in a telephone book. I am reminded of the boxes of old photos my parents kept of their relatives who were never spoken of, of whom I have no inkling. After my parents’ death, I did feel a pang of regret when disposing the photos, as if I was consigning them to oblivion, but had no desire to keep them. My genealogy consists of a generation or two, ending where the reach of memory fails.

Our Collective  Fate

Or so I once thought. An awakening occurred when I realized that many have the same view of history as I of genealogy. After being forcibly subjected to an avalanche of names, dates, battles and long-ago events, and required to memorize them, many ask: “Why should I care? How are these relevant to my daily life, my interests, cares, loves and labors?” History is but another genealogy, writ large, of a culture or a collective entity several orders removed from life’s immediate, pressing concerns.

My previous posts, Cockfosters and EMPIRE and Home in the Strange, offer a partial reply to the dismissal of history as a pile of facts that have little consequence for our immediate concerns. The past has a living presence in London and Amsterdam. But we need not travel to far lands or look to a city’s architecture. We live in and through history in everything we do, say and think. Take, for example, this very moment when I am composing this blog. I do so using paper and pen at my desk. Paper. What a remarkable invention—fashioning tree pulp into fine sheets that preserve the present for the future. Originating in China about 2 millenniums ago, paper slowly made its way along the silk road, not arriving in Europe for over 1000 years. The more immediate history of this piece of paper includes a scar in the earth where trees were efficiently hacked down, and the subsequent processing, packaging, marketing, and sales. All of these, of course, with their own long historical tail. And this is only one item in of many involved in this simple act: Writing. Writing instruments. Desk. Lighting. Chair. I lift my eyes to the window in my second story air conditioned study. My entire surroundings, everything that I see, touch and use have their own deep history, which is braided into the composite present that I inhabit, reflexively, without awareness.

The genealogy of my ancestors is a faint trace of the braided lives, loves and fates that have sired me; the miracle of “Why Me?!” . And the canals of a historically distant Home in the Strange are scribed into my character. Ancestral and historical genealogies are not background to our lives, they are constitutive. We are embodied genealogy. How ignorant, then, for me to unmindfully shout: Me! Now! Here!

History, collective or personal, engenders a reverence, indebtedness and union with those who have proceeded us. We die alone. The full weight of the singularity of our existence is experienced in the hammer-blow of our death. Genealogies help assuage our existential isolation, assuring us that we are part of a larger community, composed of the past and the yet-to-come— that our lives matter beyond the tight circumference of our time and place.

 

 ghost-haunted body
I open my mouth
my father speaks1

 

“Why Me?!”

“The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

This famous line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar wisely advises that we are not doomed by the heavens, but by ourselves. I would like to add a corollary—that how we regard the stars can doom or liberate us; that our lives are deeply affected by our cosmology.

Consider: “Why me?!”

This is an oft spoken lament when fate delivers a mishap, a crisis, a tragic blow. The emphasis of the query is on ‘ME’. Of all the people in the world, why have I been singled out for this misfortune? What have I done to warrant such unfair treatment?!” The misfortune is experienced as a deeply personal violation of the natural order, of how things are supposed to unfold. We presume an implicit causal structure in this lament; that the universe is fair, that cosmic justice privileges us, and that we have been dealt a dirty deal.

How we understand the cosmic order gives rise to our experience of “Why me?”.

I would like to briefly explore the cosmic order as it applies to me; that is, myself as a unique, conscious being, present and alive at this moment. I begin with the basic causal question: What are the origins of ‘me’? How did I get here? Biologically, I am the product of my father’s sperm and my mother’s egg. But what are the circumstances of ‘me’; of my unique presence? This is a matter of probability. Of the millions of my father’s sperm, the singular one that impregnated my mother’s singular egg is ‘me’. One in millions—that is the probability, or improbability, of ‘me’. But while this is the improbability of the biological event, it does not encompass the circumstances that gave rise to it. What if my father had been too tired or my mother too busy? What if a phone call or an emergency had interceded? Another untold million contingencies of intention, motivation, happenstance and caprice now magnify the biological improbability exponentially.

But this is only the first order improbability. What about my father’s parents? And my mother’s? And their parents. And then, again, their parent’s parents— and so forth. Indeed, this generational regress eventually traces the lineage of the human race. And, further back still, as the genome of our human ancestors emerges from earlier primates, and these, in turn, harken to earlier unions of more distant life forms. Each coupling, and the circumstances surrounding it, stacking more orders of improbability on improbability, receding into the mists of the first primordial awakenings of life.

This, however, is not the end of the causal thread. Life emerged only because of a host of remarkable planetary developments— the appearance of water and of oxygen among the most notable. And these, in turn, are descendants of big-bang cosmic events that created this precious globe and its sweet-spot orbit around our life-giving star. My being here, now, is a point on a singular trace among the near infinite number of possible trajectories that could have spun out after the big bang.

From cosmic beginnings to the formation of our planetary outpost, from water to life, from slime mold to ape, and from my father’s sperm to my mother’s egg, one single moment askew in this house-of-cards tower of improbability stretching to the stars… then—no ‘me’.

The singularity that is me also embodies the entire arc of creation: In my star-dust body, animated by the elixirs of water and oxygen, my heart throbs and my breath heaves to the rhythms conferred to me by my evolutionary heritage.

This cosmic order brings me to my knees in gratitude— and in astonishment, I ask:

“Why me?!”

 

 

 

Statues in the Park

Billy Collins 1

 

 

I thought of you today
when I stopped before an equestrian statue
in the middle of a public square,

you who had once instructed me
in the code of these noble poses.

A horse rearing up with two legs raised,
you told me, meant the rider died in battle.

if only one leg was lifted,
the man had elsewhere succumbed to his wounds;

and if four legs were touching the ground,
as they were in this case—

bronze hoofs affixed to a stone base—
it meant the man on the horse,

this one staring intently
over the closed movie theatre across the street,
had died of a cause other than war.

In the shadow of the statue,
I wondered about the others
who had simply walked through life
without a horse, a saddle, or a sword—

pedestrians who could no longer
place one foot in front of the other.

I pictured statues of the sickly
recumbent on their cold stone beds,
the suicides toeing the marble edge,

statues of accident victims covering their eyes,
the murdered covering their wounds,
the drowned silently treading the air.

And there was I,
up on a rosy-grey block of granite
near a cluster of shade trees in the local park
my name and dates pressed into a plaque,

down on my knees, eyes lifted,
praying to the passing clouds,
forever begging for just one more day.

 

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