The Fragility of Being Human and the Power of Poetry to Mend

blue word cloud composed of poet names and recurring words

The Power of Poetry

In a recent BBC2 documentary on W. H. Auden and ‘The Age of Anxiety’, Poet Paul Muldoon reflected that Auden’s work reveals the ‘fragility’ of human societies, indeed of what we think of as ‘civilisation’. It was this insight that struck me as one of the reasons for the intensely therapeutic nature of poetry, both reading and writing it. For if poetry and poets help us understand the human condition and our own experience in the world, or as Muldoon has it, in the ‘moments’ in which we find ourselves, then it can help us to fully engage with the world, with our lives and with our authentic selves.

To do this, I am convinced we need to work with all shades of existence, including, as Jung maintained, the realm of shadow. For again it was Jung’s contention that denial of the shadow gives it tremendous destructive power, acted out in political contexts in the guise of oppressive ideologies and mass violence. And Auden saw this too in the mesmerism of crowds by the rise of fascist tyrants during the 1930s,

‘And the poetry he invented was easy to understand; / He knew human folly like the back of his hand,’

 

Louis MacNeice, another poet who arose during the thirties, also imbued significant chunks of his work with a sense of human mortality and the weariness of war, yet with a balancing opposite that revelled in human connection and in moments of ‘Sunlight on the Garden’.

Even in child development we can see reflections of the poet’s worlds of fear and destruction, opposed and challenged by growth, light and creativity. Melanie Klein constructed her whole model of child development around ideas that every human child goes through a period of depression and alienation, which must be negotiated successfully in order to grow into a balanced, happy, functional adult. How is this trial surmounted? By being steeped in an environment full of opportunities to channel feelings and fears and to use creative energies to construct and express the self. This also requires being surrounded by emotionally healthy, loving carers who can become positive, constructive internalised role models. A fragile existence and perilous journey, indeed, for if these conditions are not met at least in some measure, all sorts of distorted relationships and ideas may develop, allowing for powerful defensive, negative shadow material to fester into self-destructive or outwardly violent actions.

Auden understood this dynamic and pointed it out, not I believe to be a doom warrior, but to show the way out of the cycle of destruction, through understanding and validating other humans and their experience, and by addressing our needs for safety, belonging and expressive outlets. In September 1, 1939 he writes,

‘I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.’

 

As Muldoon and other commentators in the documentary explained, the individual experience is inextricably linked to the contexts in which it emerges, and these contexts are multi-layered: time, history, place, biological, social, political, cultural. Poetry as a therapeutic resource must surely be more widely acknowledged and funded. For my own part, I find poetry encouraging and validating, which is why I seem to be on a bit of a bender of late, catching up with some of the classics like Auden and MacNeice as well as more modern poets like C. K. Williams and Paul Muldoon. Here are a few links to sites I’ve come across recently. I hope you find them as uplifting and exciting as I do.

The Interesting Literature blog

The Poetry Foundation

And the word art motif above was created free on wordart.com 

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Blind Rage and Absolute Corruption: Reflections on Macbeth

image of blood red hands and title Macbeth

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Attributed to the nineteenth century historian Lord Acton, this insight was particularly aimed at monarchical systems where the ruler was believed to be there by divine authority and therefore could do no wrong. Like some of the more despotic Roman emperors, Shakespeare’s Scottish Thane Macbeth seems to have become drunk on his own self-image and the power of kingly status. Once in the grip of it, the thirst for more power drove him to ever more bloody and heartless slaughter. And like many corrupt regimes, once the public realised they were under the rule of a tyrant it was too late to depose him. Fear was the order of the day.

Shakespeare was a genius. His understanding of human psychology is timeless, yet forever being re-discovered and Macbeth, the play, is particularly incisive. As the tale intimates, the loss of their young son triggered the slide of Lord and Lady Macbeth into a state of emotional numbness wherein the seeds of a desperate quest for validation and position could take root and fester; almost a state of grief gone awry.

We know that grief can manifest in many forms and that anger is one of them. Yet while anger is a common human emotion built to protect us, no-one would condone a power-crazed killing spree. It is, in my view, the pathological nature of Macbeth’s anger that scares us so much and that creates the dark mood of the play, with all the superstition and ritual that have surrounded it. image of face with black side versus white side Blind rage coupled with the knowledge that he has damned himself seem to drive Macbeth into a state of complete disregard for the humanity around him, perhaps even denial of their suffering. Jung would no doubt say he was in the grip of a sinister, destructive shadow archetype.

But the puzzle remains as to why and how Macbeth’s reign of terror escalated to such a degree. We hear for instance his initial thoughts of ambition and regicide, then his second thoughts pulling back from the awfulness of it – yet the influence of the witches’ predictions and Lady Macbeth’s goading are the focus of some debate. Was he channelled into his dreadful path, to carry out a self-fulfilling prophecy sparked off by the witches’ proclamations, or was the naked ambition there from before? Was he manipulated by Lady Macbeth to re-ignite his notion to murder the king, or did she just fan the flames that were already there?

Here’s an extract from my daughter Dearbhlá’s GCSE coursework of a few years ago, regarding

The Witches and Macbeth

‘The witches seem to predict that Macbeth will do something awful and the world will be thrown into chaos but when we meet Macbeth we see quite quickly that his thoughts have already been dwelling on his own political rank. They tell him he will be king and after they leave he states,

“Stay, you imperfect speakers! Tell me more!”

Murderous ambition is already present in his mind so the witches cannot be seen to have caused it, though they help to bring it to the surface. Even Macbeth himself starts to talk like the witches in another aside:

“This supernatural soliciting;

Cannot be ill, cannot be good.”….

….“My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,

Shakes so my single state of man

That function is smothered in surmise,

And nothing is but what it is not.”

Macbeth is “rapt” according to Banquo, and mesmerised by what the witches have said but this could be because it has opened up ideas and plans already in his head. So again the witches are part of the backdrop but not the entire cause of all the chaos and horror in the play. If the witches do have a bigger plan to destroy Scotland, Macbeth is a willing pawn in their game. Even more sinister is his wife Lady Macbeth who as we will also see later encourages and even browbeats him into actually murdering King Duncan.

While the witches have created the atmosphere and kick-started the core themes of the play, it is the main characters of Macbeth and his wife who think the ambitious thoughts and do the evil deeds….

There is a sense that the witches’ predictions are coming true. It could just be that this was bound to happen and they are commentators, dramatising the events with an enchanted presence. But Macbeth may not have actually committed the murders without the witches’ confirmation that he would become king. They do, therefore, influence the development of the chaotic, terrifying plot, alongside Macbeth and his wife.’  [Dearbhlá McDonnell 2012]

As many literature students will attest, the theme of the play is terror; fear of what the next moment will bring. The witches and Lady Macbeth serve to intensify the emotion of the play and act as vehicles for the darkness erupting from the main character, Macbeth. So, on to the reason for my choice of subject today – I went to see the film yesterday evening with my daughter Caitríona at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast.

We both felt it was brilliant, if horrifying. There are many difficult scenes of violence and carnage which do, however, create the frightening historical, social and personal context perfectly. Every aspect of the film, from cast to colour palette, does justice to The Bard’s most risky and perhaps most perceptive work. Humans are strong but also weak; have the potential for good and for evil; create and destroy. Given a conglomeration of random events and developmental circumstances, anyone’s life can turn into a perfect storm of chaos. This is the lesson we must take from Macbeth.

Without checks and balances, human nature is corruptible.

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

 

Citations for images:

http://www.blurb.com/b/589370-macbeth

http://www.wisdompills.com/2014/09/04/collective-unconscious-archetypes-comprise/

Archetypes and Elixirs: A Jungian Perspective on Life as We Know It.

Image of flaming red liquid in a cocktail glass

Returning with the Elixir of Knowledge and Wisdom

One of the key themes in Jungian psychology is that of individuation, which is an expansive process involving realisation and manifestation of the archetypes within. Archetypal aspects refer to many different facets of the self’s potential, such as the Shadow, the Animus or Anima, the Wise Elder or the Trickster / Magician. Many of these inner selves are unconscious or undeveloped and only emerge when we are able to unearth their existence through various channels such as encounters, dreams and active imagination.

All cultures have notions of human personality and self, made up of multiple aspects, many of which are oppositional or paradoxical and often these various traits are personified into panthea of gods and goddesses or other equally varied groups of characters. Take, for instance, the ways in which each of the Graeco-Roman deities encapsulates a set of particular human strengths and weaknesses. For instance Athena is wise and just but also warlike and ruthless in certain circumstances. Apollo likewise brings illness but also healing in the form of the arts and muses.

 

Individuation – Incorporating the Archetypes

At the start of every human life there is a diffusion of experience, expression and personality. That complex cloud of embodied sensations in the world gradually becomes organised into patterns of thought, feeling and memory and infused into a sense of the individual self. While all these phenomena are shaped and informed by the physical and social environments around us, variously named and operationalised through culture, certain broad categories of experience and expression can be identified across humanity and according to Jungian thought, these constitute the archetypes. Archetypes are universal potentials for broad human drives, yet as potentials for patterning, they are manifest in ways unique to individuals and cultures, rather like the ways in which each snowflake is structured through certain rules of construction, yet no two snowflakes are the same.

Jung stressed that this individuation was not a materialistic ‘individualism’ but a spiritual quest, a journey, and one which required a certain amount of courage and determination to overcome fear and resistance within the self. It also involves the withdrawal of projections, in other words the taking of responsibility for our own lives and recognising the fact that our own growth is in our own hands. To incorporate the archetypes successively through the sequence of Shadow first, then Anima/Animus and beyond, entails as well a kind of accumulated knowledge or insight – the elixir of life, the wisdom of the ages. And that wisdom and insight is most beneficially directed at ourselves, as The Oracle reminded Neo in the very archetypal movie ‘The Matrix’.

We have helpers along the way, though, such as family, friends, inspirational leaders and authors, as well as examples to follow in the guise of totems, god-like and saintly figures and characters from myth and legend. We also have negative influences, sometimes within the established society and canons of accepted ideas and practices around us, sometimes within our circle of relationships, and sometimes within ourselves as internalised negative attitudes and inner critical voices.

The Hero’s Journey

Archetypes and Elixirs form the raw material of the hero’s journey, our journey. Our internal responses to events, characters and relationships in the world around us shape the person we become. Whether that is contracted, frozen and bitter or expanded, empathic and wise, is largely up to us.  The Archetypes are always there, waiting for us to awaken them, the Elixirs are ever-present and calling to be consumed. Taking the plunge can be the most difficult first move but also the most exhilarating. Starting with some dream delving is one way in, creative journaling another. Both of these techniques helped to jump-start my own journey, informed and motivated by reading the works of Dr Carl Jung and inspirational blogs such as Jean Raffa’s here on wordpress. Individuation is an act of self-creation and the creative potential is inherent in all humans. Any creative activity can get your individuating juices flowing, indeed creativity has been identified as a significant booster of mental health promotion and recovery.

 

Thanks for dropping by,

Enjoy the Journey 🙂

 

Flaming Elixir Image source Guest of a Guest website, New York  http://guestofaguest.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/red-snapper-210×300.jpg

Buried by the Shadow: Lessons from Baudelaire

Having just read a piece of historical fiction called Black Venus by James MacManus, I have been left at once saddened, uplifted, more informed about the French poet Charles Baudelaire and perhaps also a little wiser on the work of shadow energies in our lives. In the midst of public horror and ridicule, this gifted but tormented artist had the courage to face and describe the human shadow through its many manifestations in his personal life (much like James Joyce would do a century later). It is this window of identification and therefore the sense that we are not alone in our experiences that is, I believe, one of the massive attributes of literature, indeed all forms of expression. These ideas are also tied in with my current interests in creativity and mental health recovery and promotion, as well as with previous musings on the role of the shadow within a Jungian approach to personal maturation.

That literature and Jungian ideas overlap is inevitable. Jung emphasised the symbolic nature of human thought and imagination, as did Baudelaire and Manet. A muse was often a source of both inspiration and projection for the artist, a dynamic that may well be present in all our lives – who hasn’t ever had a hero or a guru or some other personified source of inspiration and motivation?

 

But to truly move onwards in  the hero’s journey of our life course, it is essential to incorporate and balance all the archetypal energies, of which the dark shadow is only one. The self-acceptance required remains elusive and unthinkable still for many of us and therefore while we might take the necessary step of acknowledging the shadow’s terrifying existence in ourselves, we must also avoid disowning and projecting it, or conversely, allowing it to swallow and destroy us. I fear that Baudelaire may have been devoured by his own shadow, a force he projected into his muses and possibly detected in himself but was unable to fully accept with compassion and therefore was ultimately unable to constructively channel it.

Like many before and since, Baudelaire went relatively unappreciated in his own time but is now recognised for his visionary genius and his initiation (with the painter Manet) of a whole new world of symbolism, modernist literature and the impressionist artistic oeuvre. T. S. Eliot, who wrote the groundbreaking modernist work The Wastelandcited Baudelaire as having paved the way for him and as the inspiration behind his poetry.

While the nihilism of these writers might be something of a blind alley if taken alone, and for many an all-too-shocking description of human nature, they did at least move towards a more authentic insight into that nature, if ultimately a too-pessimistic and destructive one. From  more recent work on the shadow as being both dark and light, we can embrace the shadow as having something to teach us, as gifting us with the potential for liberation and motivation, while living alongside the inherent potential danger.

It is unclear whether or not Baudelaire reached a level of self acceptance and accommodation. Certainly by all accounts he struggled and suffered but also experienced episodes of joy and happiness  in his life. I suspect we are all dancing a similar dance and can only hope that through literature, compassion, empathy and all the many forms of self-expression we can find, we can each give and take encouragement with our fellow journey-makers. Whether or not we manage to face, own and constructively channel our own shadow aspect is possibly the chief deciding factor of our mental health and well-being, perhaps even one of the  core tasks of our lives.

The novel Black Venus  by James MacManus is and excellent read by the way (follow the link at the start of this post).

My book is available now in the UK, USA and on Palgrave and Amazon sites:

Creativity and Social Support in Mental Health: Service Users’ Perspectives (Palgrave 2014)

 

images: Top: Charles Baudelaire by Emile Deroy

and Second image is T.S.Eliot photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell

 

 

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