Friday, November 06, 2009

Soulful Love:
The Beautiful Problem

There is probably no more vivid evidence of the soul at work than the experience of romantic love. We recognize the story every time. We understand it perfectly. But when it happens to us, we are astonished. We are never prepared. If the current of this love is not shared and reciprocated, we are seared and scalded, helpless and bereft. When the feeling is shared and returned, we ascend, we unfurl. There is nothing else like it. When Juliet realizes that she loves Romeo and that he loves her, that the exquisite possibility has become real, she bursts forth:

…I long but for the thing I have
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite. (II, ii, 132-35)

Romantic love is both ecstatic and restless. Souls in love, like Juliet, long for the thing they have. In The Symposium, Plato’s dialog on love, Socrates suggests that this ecstatic longing is the soul’s attempt to mediate between the earthbound condition and the divine. The beauty of one’s beloved is seen as a soulful glimpse—as is the condition of being in love itself—into the source of all Beauty. Consciously, lovers feel as though their souls are somehow trying to leave their bodies, to merge physically and finally into the soul of the beloved. The intensity of this drive often propels the lovers, especially in love’s first thrall, past boundaries of propriety. Perhaps for the first time, propriety feels insubstantial. Freud and his disciples reduce this condition to an epiphenomenon, or “sublimation,” of the erotic drive, but doing so fails to recognize the psychological independence of soulful-relatedness and Eros. Eros is indeed the agent that attracts and unites the bodies of soulful lovers in orgasmic rapture, but the union of souls can and does occur before, after, and otherwise independently of erotic feeling. It is perhaps more helpful to see Eros as the bodily expression of soulful love. In service of such love, Eros produces an altogether different dimension of experience and pleasure than it does merely discharging its own gratification.

In his novel Refiner’s Fire, Mark Helprin describes two soulful lovers engaged in a night-long sexual frenzy, each feeling as though he or she were trying not merely to penetrate or receive the other, but to pass through them entirely. The notion that souls in love are seeking to achieve a prior merger or unity is of course ancient. In The Symposium Aristophanes offers the charming myth of a pre-human race of spherical, hermaphroditic androgynes who are severed apart by the gods and who spend the rest of their days desperately seeking to reunite with their other halves. Soulful love does indeed feel this way: fated, discovered, foreordained. One not only aches for union with one’s soul mate, one aches to get back to a blissful and perfect condition. Coming to rest in the arms of one’s beloved is, among other things, a profound homecoming.

Probably because of this restless dynamic of soulful love, a number of voices in the late twentieth century are pressing the case that soulful attraction is an expression of incomplete transactions in past lives. Whether formulated by pop spiritualists like Shirley Maclaine or by contemporary interpreters of the Ohio mystic Edgar Cayce or by “multiple regression” analysts like Brian Weiss, the “past lives” view sees soulful attraction as a working out of the soul’s unfinished business in former incarnations. While it would take this reflection off course to assess the validity of the reincarnational premises of past-lives theorists, it is important to note that even if one accepts that one’s soul and its longings have a long and interesting past, such knowledge sheds little or no light on the living, waking experience of being soulfully in love. In other words, to draw on examples cited in Brian Weiss’s work, knowing that my beloved and I once trysted among the pyramids of ancient Egypt or that, more recently, she was my sister, does not help me to negotiate my way forward in love. Nor does such awareness expand or deepen the love that I feel – for soulful love by its very nature feels boundlessly rich and deep, often unmanageably so.

Perhaps no modern thinker has cast a brighter light on the phenomenon of soulful love – and its distressing consequences – than the Jungian writer Robert Johnson. His study, We, is a careful explication of the medieval story of Tristan and Isolde, and Johnson sees in the unfolding of their fabled liaison no less than the release of an entirely new psychic force in the western world. Tristan and Isolde’s fatal attraction is the prototype for romantic love itself. It is a love that comes unbidden and unexpected by lovers who are honorably committed to others. Indeed, on the world’s terms, their love is all wrong, and the pair has more practical reason to be great enemies than great lovers. But when they are fated to connect, in their case through the agency of an accidentally consumed herbal potion, they cannot and do not resist each other for the rest of their foreshortened lives. Told and translated well, the twelfth century romance is still stirringly beautiful, as is Wagner’s operatic treatment of the story.

Johnson does not claim that Tristan and Isolde are the west’s first star-crossed lovers. He proposes, rather, that their story released – irrevocably – the notion of soulful love as the ideal form of loving relationship, one that demands our ultimate allegiance, however terrible the consequences. Despite its deeply embedded place in western culture, the habit of idealizing romantic love causes enormous, unsolvable problems. Soulful lovers do not seem to live happily ever after. Tristan and Isolde themselves faced great dangers, suffered terrible wounds and illness, betrayed spouses, broke sacred promises, endured agonizing periods of isolation and loneliness before dying prematurely and unfulfilled. Tristan’s very name derives from an early French word for sadness. And this is the ideal at the heart of every popular love song! Despite such monumental evidence that Romeos and Juliets do not fare well or long in the waking world, the expectation of romantic love has become a cultural norm. In the face of terrible evidence, couples considering making a life together hold fast to the standard of romantic love – to the extent that anything that feels less soulful and profound is thought to be an indication of a bad match.

Romantic love has come to be irresistible, although, as Robert Johnson reminds us, it is a terrible problem. But a problem is not the same thing as a mistake. The release of the romantic ideal in the west is not something that can be called back or contained. Romantic love can be seen more or less clearly, but it cannot be seen through. It is real, powerful, a condition souls know and to which they fatefully conform.

The achievement of the Tristan and Isolde story, again, is not the recounting of a great, ill-starred love affair; it is the suggestion that such love, once experienced, can stand up to custom, law, honor, and duty and – heartbreakingly, catastrophically – claim a higher place. “Hang up philosophy,” Romeo rages to Friar Laurence, if it cannot produce a Juliet. Later, when he believes he has lost her to death, Romeo defies “the stars” themselves. In Wuthering Heights Heathcliffe forsakes Christian or any other salvation in his relentless, lawless pursuit of Cathy. It appears that nothing in practical, waking reality can intimidate or diminish true soulful love. In the wake of Tristan and Isolde, a terrible freedom is born. A kind of permission has been forever granted to the soul to meet its beloved other.

The stories of Tristan and Isolde, Abelard and Heloise, Romeo and Juliet are so unutterably beautiful – but they are all disasters! Occasionally in the early Greek and Roman myths a mortal would aspire to love a god in the flesh, which is something like falling in love with the very source of love, only to perish in a flash of white heat. The unleashing of the romantic impulse in the west threatens lovers with the same fate.

In an especially apt analogy, Robert Johnson likens romantic love to plugging into a 10,000 volt current when one is wired only for 110 volt household use. But soulful lovers do not, cannot heed high voltage warnings. They have been liberated to love not just judiciously or moderately, but to seek the source of love itself. In Dante’s great vision of love in paradise, beloved persons are seen as celestial windows through which the ultimate can be glimpsed. For lovers in the thrall of romantic love, the beloved person is the ultimate.
Nothing is more transporting, more thrilling to the soul than experiencing the other as the ultimate. Yet, Johnson cautions us, this sublime condition, this peak experience is a mistake. It is a confusion of a powerful psychic inner reality with an outward form. The romantic lover projects his very soul – his anima – onto a mortal, flesh-and-blood person. Infinite desire and longing thus come to bear on a finite being, with disastrous results for one or both parties.

There is a point late in the story of Tristan and Isolde when Tristan has sorrowfully returned Isolde to her lawful husband, King Mark, and he himself agrees to marry a noblewoman from Brittany. For a moment there is a hint that the lovers will “get over it,” sadder but wiser – but no. The love of Isolde the Fair revisits Tristan in a sudden tidal wave of feeling. Defying propriety and safety, he makes yet another overture to reunite. This is the point, Johnson believes, where Tristan goes finally wrong.

He is called to give up his precious claim to the right to live his soul by projection. He is called to give up his demand that woman bear his unconscious life for him. If he could make that sacrifice, and make it cleanly, he would discover that what he thinks he has lost will be returned to him. His soul will be returned to him as an inner experience, and he will find that there is another Isolde, a mortal woman, who has been waiting for him all along… (We, 113-114)

Yes, there is another Isolde, Isolde of the White Hands, waiting for Tristan, and she is a woman with substance and beauty of her own, but she is not his soul mate. She is a valuable “other” but she is not his other. She makes perfect practical sense as a mate for Tristan, but no sense at all to a soul already in love. Johnson wonders at “the strange morality” that impels Tristan and Isolde to perpetuate a condition that hurts themselves while deceiving others. Johnson sees in this ever recurring Romantic Error a misplaced attempt to restore divine wonder in a culture that has lost its sense of divinity.

Romanticism seeks to restore our sense of the divine side of life, the inner life, the power of imagination, myth, dream, and vision. The tragedy that this portion of our story shows us is that we misuse the ideal of romanticism, misplace the divine love, and in the process we destroy our human relationships. We call “love” that which is not love, we reverse the meaning of “faithlessness,” and we pursue an ephemeral idealized image of anima, rather than loving a flesh-and-blood-human being. (We, 131)"There is the case, then, that romantic love is not love at all; the romantic experience is reduced to a projection of anima, which Johnson tells us, “must be experienced as inner person, as symbol.” (We, 133)Johson continues,"In the instant that a man falls “in love,” he goes beyond love itself and begins the worship of his soul-in-woman…Love is not love but a divine ecstasy; every sight of the beloved brings, not a quiet happiness, but unearthly bliss. But then… every mood becomes the occasion for a fight or a separation, every slight is the ultimate betrayal, every glance at another man or woman justifies blasts of anger and jealousy…"(We, 164)

What lovers held in the alternating ecstasies and agonies of soulful love can deny the condition Johnson describes? Yet to name the condition a human error is to stand outside of it, luckily (or is it unluckily) free of it. To stand apart, however, is to “know about” soulful love but not to know it. Someone could have sat Tristan down and talked perfect, uncontestable sense to him – indeed Friar Laurence did talk perfect sense to Romeo – but it would not have mattered in the slightest. The soul in love trumps analysis, trumps good sense, trumps the very will to live. The story of Tristan and Isolde is a shimmering instance of romantic ideal. It can be made into a cautionary tale, but it will have no force or power as a cautionary tale. The charge of “strange morality,” or even immorality, is both fair and beside the soulful point. With every successive popularization of the romantic love guest – in the fifties Sondheim/Bernstein’s West Side Story, in the sixties Eric Segal’s Love Story, in the nineties The Bridges of Madison County – critical eyes roll. How trite, how treacly, how sophomoric. But those who have had so much as an intimation of soulful love, and those who recall the condition, are transported every time.

As I write these words, a woman nearby is falling hopelessly in love. A happy, balanced wife and mother of three, she has always counted herself lucky in matters of the heart. She is an attractive, athletic woman of high color and high spirits. Friends and boyfriends always came easily her way – including the rangy young man she met in college who would marry her shortly afterwards. About her husband, children, place in the community, she feels somehow that all has been serenely scripted. The contour and texture of her adult life are eerily as she always imagined they would be. Her children engage and for the most part satisfy her, and she is demonstrably good with them. Her husband, should she stop to consider, makes her feel valued, right, and safe.

Together they have decided to investigate country properties on the outskirts of the city, and in the course of one morning’s excursion, she finds herself taken with the curly-headed estate agent. While mannerly and appropriately attentive, he is also very, loonily funny. “Oddly enough,” he tells her as he unlocks a home under review, “there is no kitchen, nor any bathrooms. The owners feel very strongly about this.” He made her laugh and when, laughing, she met his eyes, he seemed to be looking deep into her interior. Later, thinking about him, she felt the impulse to laugh but also something deeper and more unsettling. The first thing the following morning, she called to make another appointment.

This lovely and loving woman has begun to make a mess. Before long her husband will be by turns livid and bereft. Her parents, friends and in-laws will be incredulous. All of this will hurt her, and she will feel embarrassed, guilty, bottomlessly apologetic. She is propelled through chaotic days and nearly sleepless nights by a new kind of lift. She feels carried along by the force of her love. Occasionally she reflects with wonder on a phrase she had sometimes used to describe her condition: “safely married.”

This woman’s drama is real, and the consequences of her actions will be substantial and enduring for everyone involved. While it would do little to ease her passage if she knew it, her drama is also eternal, its structure embedded in the mythology of philandering gods and goddesses of creation. Only later would we discover gods, righteous father gods, bearing astringent commandments and laws. But somehow the sterner, Jehovan figures never quite succeed in supplanting the Olympians or in suppressing their unpredictable inclinations to fall inconveniently in love. Of course today’s gods and goddesses dwell in the empyrean of the tabloids: the realm where the married Prince has had a dalliance with another, while the dizzyingly beautiful princess is said to have bedded a stable hand. A beloved young president, a story-book family man, the arrangement of whose family is called “Camelot,” seems to have trysted with the Aphrodite of the film world – to have trysted, it now appears, with uncountable Aphrodites. On the undeniable evidence of the tabloids – and a strong case has been made that the whole of western journalism has become tabloid – we cannot get enough of the story of consuming, impossible love. Royalty, military commanders, presidents risk everything in its pursuit. A recent President seems to have been especially heedless in this regard, willing to chase the swirl of Aphrodite’s skirt into a White House lavatory.

We readers, viewers, critics, witnesses are simultaneously appalled and thrilled: there it is again! Prior either to our opprobrium or titillation, we know this story. Moreover, our souls know it is not always a scandal. The power and beauty of soulful love will endure long after the hiss and whisper of scandal has fallen silent. The tragedy of soulful love – of Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet – is that the heroic, if mortal, efforts of the lovers fall short. The tragedy is not that the lovers break moral rules or violate conventional standards. Truth be told, there is a persistent tendency in the western mind to scandalize and punish lovers far in excess of any offense or injury caused. Castigating lovers and debunking love itself are an integral part of the enterprise that would deny the reality of the soul and soulfulness altogether. But because the soul is true, and one of its irrepressible expressions is soulful love, the cultural forces in opposition set out to punish what they have failed to eliminate. Out come the stocks, the scarlet letters, the special prosecutors.

One does not have to be an ardent or a wounded feminist to realize that in standard western tellings, lovers who defy convention to seek their beloved – especially the women – are made to pay a terrible, unendurable price. They are scorned, cloistered, killed. Emma Bovary drinks poison. Anna Karenina jumps under a train. In our era, fatal attractions, as in the film by that name, are most likely fatal for the woman. There seems to be an abiding cultural terror of women loving forcefully and fully. That kind of power, if it cannot be suppressed or contained, elicits a deadly desire to punish and negate. Nowhere is this tendency more stridently evident than when women fall soulfully in love with other women. There is the strongest inclination to whisk such players off the stage or, like Thelma and Louise, to accelerate their automobile over the side of a cliff.
So soulful love does indeed have a hard time, but perhaps not impossibly so. Love does sometimes find a way. In fact, love may take more hope and comfort from the historical record than it can from the literary record. At least occasionally, it seems, real life partners love and win.
With the new millennium there has been an insistent and unashamed appeal to risk romantic love—no matter what the costs. To be held fast in love is to have crossed safe boundaries, to have trespassed. Just as Romeo and Juliet’s vaulting union arises out of the vulgar sexual badinage of Capulet and Montague kinsmen and retainers, the late twentieth century abandonment of propriety, standards, and restraint in sexual matters seems to want to open us up to something great and possibly unthinkable. Popular television now details the ways of “Sex in the City,” offers us sustained and unembarrassed helpings of “Real Sex.” This contemporary libertinism is novel in that is neither marginal nor counter-cultural; it is mainstream, and wants to engage everybody.

It is hard to know into what category to place the writings of Nancy Friday, but in her collections of women’s erotic fantasies and confessions, there is a strong suggestion that one doesn’t perish or go blind if one indulges forbidden ideas and urges. Pornography itself, James Hillman suggests in his essay “Pink Madness,” is a cunning aphroditic gesture to awaken dull and dormant souls. In her study, The Erotic Silence of the American Wife, Dalma Heyn offers a number of accounts of women who have loved outside the conventions of marriage and propriety – had affairs – and emerged feeling rather the better for it. Few readers with even a dull eye open to the amorous relationships of the adults they know need to be told that when already committed partners are beset by a new and powerful love, serious trouble lies ahead. But in addition to the trouble, and perhaps beyond it, may lie soulful love.

Not many affairs of the heart, including (and perhaps especially) the most inflamed, endure for life. Tristan and Isolde perish for the love of the other just before the three-year efficacy of their herbal potion was to run out. A few months to a few years seems to be a common duration for affairs. Not many souls seem to be able to bear the intensity of romantic love for long. The volatility of such love may subside into a more or less sustainable mutuality as the lovers mature. Such pairs may be said to live adaptively ever after. Those who do are likely to suppress their earlier, more soulful bond with a kind of amnesia, or, if they recall it at all, they regard it as an outgrown sentiment, a youthful infatuation. This view of soulful love has become conventional wisdom in the western world and seems to distance reasonable adults from the condition. But there appears to be no dismissing or condescending to the real thing. In middle life, especially among men, the romantic impulse is likely to reawaken the soul with a force and richness which, if anything, exceeds the intensity of first love. So-called mid-life crisis may be the price exacted for neglecting one’s soul: for forgetting that the soul, unlike the body or its persona, does not age, adapt, or grow weary.

Soulful Love Comes to the Roosevelts

Soulful love is rarely practically convenient, but the historical record suggests that, with grace and imagination, it can be integrated into even the most unlikely social configurations. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s remarkable study of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s era, No Ordinary Time, reveals, among many other things, the tragicomic interplay between soulful love and social convention. Looked at one way, the Roosevelts’ extramarital trysts carry the capricious charm of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; looked at another way, they are the stuff of tabloid scandal.

There were probably no more confining behavioral boundaries and social expectations in the United States than those of the New York patrician society into which Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt came of age at the turn of the century. Sara, the family matriarch, made sure her son Franklin was suitably matched to woman of his class, in this case to his cousin Eleanor, who shared the family name. Whatever mutual respect and comfort the young couple felt in one another’s company, theirs was not a love match. Under his mother’s attentive scrutiny, young Franklin rose to a distinguished post as Under Secretary of the Navy, and Eleanor began the arduous business of bearing and raising his six children. She would later confide to her daughter that the sexual dimension of her marriage was an “ordeal” she grimly endured. In September of 1918, when she was thirty-four and had given birth to her last child, she received a sudden and unsettling reprieve from her ordeal. Unpacking Franklin’s bags from a trip he had taken to Europe to review allied military arrangements, she came upon a packet of love letters to her husband from Lucy Page Mercer, her personal secretary and a much beloved fixture in the Roosevelt household. Lucy Mercer was a statuesque beauty, descended from a prominent Washington family. Just twenty-two when she came into Eleanor and Franklin’s lives, she brought with her a special intensity. Elliott Roosevelt, then only a small boy, recalled, “She was gay, smiling, and relaxed. She had the same brand of charm as father, and everybody who met her spoke of that – and there was a hint of fire in her warm dark eyes.” None of Franklin’s magnetism was lost on Lucy. Tall, fit, and exuberant in his mid-thirties, he attracted her powerfully. Years later Lucy would confess to a friend that she was drawn to him immediately. The excitement and sweetness of their mutual attraction seemed to permeate the household. Anna Roosevelt, still a toddler when the affair was discovered, recalled “feeling happy” on the days Lucy Mercer reported to work.

When the affair was discovered in 1918, Eleanor confronted her husband directly and offered to divorce him. This FDR declined to do, aware that a divorce would certainly curtail his future political aspirations as well as, given his mother’s firm disapproval, cutting off his family inheritance. Moreover, Lucy Mercer was a faithful Catholic, and his remarriage would not be allowed within the Church. For both Roosevelts, and for Lucy, it was a time of soulful reckoning. Later, Eleanor would confess, “The bottom dropped out of my particular world and I faced myself, my surroundings, my world, honestly for the first time.”

Eleanor was forever changed and deepened by her husband’s amorous departure, and so, apparently was he. Much has been written about how Franklin’s coming to terms with a crippling encounter with polio three years later brought forth an inner strength and integrity that would transform him into a fully realized man and a great leader. His closest friends saw the transformation begin earlier, in his reckoning with his affair with Lucy. Franklin’s friend Corinne Rolinson Alsop remembers, “Up to the time that Lucy Mercer came into Franklin’s life, he seemed to look at human relationships coolly, calmly, and without depth. He viewed his family dispassionately and enjoyed them, but it had in my opinion a loveless quality as if he were incapable of emotion…it is difficult to describe…to me it (the affair) seemed to release something in him.” Her husband Joe Alsop had a concurring impression: “He (Franklin) emerged tougher and more resilient, wiser and more profound even before his struggle with polio.”

But, one must ask, what of the love? What of the soulful relatedness? Franklin was sobered, contrite, hurt, deepened – and, the evidence suggests, forever and unalterably bound to Lucy Mercer in love. Eleanor was shaken to her existential roots. Consequently she chose to face the reality of her new marital circumstances honestly. Formally and politically she would continue to be FDR’s wife and, before long, First Lady of the land. Intimately, she would never have marital relations with her husband again. Lucy departed the scene promptly and discreetly, two years later marrying a rather older New York patrician, Winthrop Rutherford. For twenty-five years she would not be a physical presence in Franklin’s life, but she would return to him. She was improbably with him when he was stricken by a cerebral embolism and died. Very possibly her face was the last image he beheld on earth.

Three years after Lucy Mercer left the Roosevelts, Franklin contracted polio while on holiday at Campobello. The attack left him crippled to the extent that he was never able to walk unassisted again. The remarkable recovery of his spirits and the rest of his body has been commonly attributed to a congenital optimism and courage. There would probably have been no such regeneration, however, were it not for the soulful presence of another extraordinary woman at his side.

Marguerite “Missy” LeHand was hired on to do secretarial work for FDR in the course of his unsuccessful bid for the vice-presidency in 1920. Bright-eyed, pretty, and acutely intelligent, she made such an impression on both Roosevelts that after the election Eleanor invited Missy to come back with the family to the ancestral estate at Hyde Park where she would help Franklin with his correspondence. At these secretarial and other tasks, Missy soon became indispensable and, like Lucy Mercer, a warm and enlivening presence in the household. At Hyde Park and later at the governor’s residence in Albany and at the White House, Roosevelt’s professional colleagues, family members, and staff all sensed an uncanny personal acuity in Missy. When she spoke, she seemed to speak for FDR, and her credibility and judgment were not questioned. Without apparent effort or intention, Missy was assumed into Franklin’s most intimate confidence.
There seems to have been little that was subtle or clandestine in Missy LeHand’s relationship to FDR in middle life. “There is no doubt,” Goodwin quotes White House aide Raymond Moley as saying, “that Missy was as close to being a wife as he ever had – or could have.” Eliot Janeway confided to Goodwin in an interview, “Missy was the real wife.” Missy was a soul mate.

Being Franklin Roosevelt’s “real,” or soulful, wife would require its special compensations, and these would finally never come to Missy. Back in the twenties she had spent languorous, out-of-time months at FDR’s side as he tried to rejuvenate his legs in the spa waters of Warm Springs, Georgia, and aboard his commodious houseboat, Larooco, in Florida. Missy’s days were spent with Franklin on the beach or fishing over the rails of the anchored Larooco. In the evenings she was gracious hostess to intimate dinner parties. A photograph of the period shows Missy, Franklin, and a visiting couple seated comfortably on the sands of a vast Florida beach. Men and women alike wear the black bathing tunics of the era, and all four look familiarly at ease, glowing with health. Missy reclines to Franklin’s right, her image melding comfortably into his bronzed shoulder.

Franklin’s polio had not crippled him sexually. After his parents’ death, Elliott Roosevelt revealed that Missy and her father had most certainly been lovers. She was noticed entering and leaving Franklin’s room in her nightclothes. “I remember,” Elliott wrote “being only mildly stirred to see him with Missy on his lap as he sat on a wicker chair in the main stateroom (of the Larooco) holding her in his sun-browned arms…He made no attempt to conceal his feelings about Missy.”

In 1927 Franklin determined that is was past time to return to public life, and Missy had a severe nervous breakdown. She underwent bouts of delirium, and for eleven days she was unreachable. It would be months before she could return to her duties and to Franklin, who was now on the brink of accepting the gubernatorial nomination for New York. “Don’t you dare,” she is said to have told him. But of course he would dare, and Missy held on, serving in Albany and later in Washington as personal advisor, secretary, hostess, general factotum – and “real wife.” The compensation, she must have believed, would come later. Certainly it would come after two excruciating terms as President during the Great Depression and the ominous onset of world war.

As the President entered his historic third term, Missy LeHand faced the unendurable fact that her beloved would not descend from the public sphere into the private sphere of her longing. She had worked beyond her capacity on his behalf, but there was no end to this work. On June 4, 1941, after accompanying FDR to a musical party, she collapsed. Exhausted, she apparently suffered a kind of stroke, exacerbated by opiate medicines, which disoriented her. As in her previous breakdowns, she wept and wept, calling for the president: “FD, FD!”

She would never really recover. Sent back to her sister in Somerville, Massachusetts, to get well, she would live only a few years as an invalid in body and spirit. On the New Year’s eve of 1941, hopelessly exiled, Missy let the door of her soul open wide. Her sister wrote to the President:
"She started crying about 11:30, and we couldn’t stop her. And then she had a heart spell and kept calling 'F.D., come, please come. Oh F.D.' It really was the saddest thing I ever hope to see, we were all crying…"

In the summer of 1944 Missy LeHand went to the movies with her sister in Harvard Square. A newsreel featured shots of the President, and Missy was stricken to see his care-worn and ravaged condition. When she returned to her room, she rifled through an old photo album for pictures of Franklin vigorous and sunburned, of them together in the sun. Then her left arm, paralyzed for three years, began to move. Soon after she convulsed and died. She was forty-six.

Eleanor Roosevelt was not troubled by her husband’s relationship to Missy as she had been by the attachment to Lucy Mercer. She too was awakening to soulful love. In her new, purposeful immersion in political life, she had met and befriended a new kind of woman. These new friends included journalists, teachers, high ranking political operatives. They made their way in the world with a dashing independence, without husbands. Some of them lived together in, to use a term from the period, “Boston marriages.” Some of them sported mannish hair-cuts, male attire. Mother-in-law Sara was appalled that such company actually came to call at Hyde Park. Franklin and his cronies were not, according to Doris Goodwin, above joking about Eleanor’s “she-men” and “squaws.” Clearly unthreatened and far from disapproving, Franklin built a twenty-two-room “cottage,” Val-Kill, on the Hyde Park grounds intended exclusively for Eleanor and her female friends.

In 1932 as the Roosevelts were about to make the dramatic transition to the White House, one of those friends became, for the first time in Eleanor’s life, a beloved best friend. Lorena Hickock, then thirty-nine, was a remarkable woman. Arising from modest circumstances and an abusive household in Wisconsin, she looked after her own education and emerged, first in the Midwest and then nationally as a newspaper commentator of the first rank. An extroverted two hundred-pounder, she was comfortable in men’s attire, enjoyed bouts of poker and an occasional cigar. When Hickock was first assigned to “cover” the first-lady-to-be on a daily basis, Franklin cautioned Eleanor, “Watch out for that Hickock woman – she’s smart.”

More than smart, Lorena, called familiarly “Hick,” recognized Eleanor’s latent gifts as a promoter of liberal causes and as a writer. At first humbled by women who could make a mark in the world outside the domestic realm, Eleanor would, with Hick’s robust support, become such a figure herself. The first lady and the reporter assigned to reveal her to the nation fell soulfully in love.

As Doris Goodwin points out, no one before had pursued Eleanor in love, no one had put her first. By the time Franklin was inaugurated in March of 1933, Eleanor was wearing Hick’s sapphire ring. “I want to put my arms around you…to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort. I look at it and think she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it.” While apart, they corresponded daily. On the telephone in earshot of her family Eleanor could not tell Hick the depth of her feeling: “ Jimmy was near,” Eleanor wrote, “and I couldn’t say je t’aime and je t’adore.” When she could not kiss Hick, she confessed, she would kiss her picture.

Within a year Hick was consumed with her love for Eleanor to the exclusion of other worldly concerns. Too close now to her subject to risk betraying her “objectively,” Hick resigned her post as an AP reporter and took a government job with the WPA. Work of any kind came to feel like an intrusion on her time with her beloved. “Funny how even the dearest face will fade away in time,” she wrote to Eleanor, missing her. “Most clearly I remember your eyes with a kind of teasing smile in them and the feeling of that soft spot just northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips.”

Elated to be loved and in love, Eleanor rose to distinction and popular celebrity in the course of her first two terms as first lady. She commanded a then unprecedented $1,000 for speaking, and her column, “My Day,” was widely syndicated nationally. Confident now and gently charismatic, her straightforward and persistent concern for outsiders and underdogs, while consistent with New Deal politics generally, sometimes impelled her to press an issue on which her husband was reluctant to move.

But as Eleanor grew in private confidence and public stature, Hick, as is so often the case with those soulfully in love with someone the public adores, felt inevitably diminished. No longer a by-line in the national news, Hick was periodically identified in photos as a bodyguard or secretary to her beloved. Eleanor still treasured her special friend, but increasingly she seemed to love her public duty more. Predictably, Hick over-compensated, petulantly demanding more solitary time with Eleanor, time which Eleanor found impossible to commit. In 1941 some pressing financial concerns, combined with a desperate desire to see Eleanor at least glancingly, moved Hick to seek lodging at the White House. A small room near the President’s second-floor suite was made available, and for four years, Hick dwelled at least in Eleanor’s orbit, although her eccentric presence there became the object of increasing amusement. White House ushers called her “the enduring guest.”

In time Hick’s under-answered longing would flag. Her marginal place in the great household and the loss of her professional status only added to her conviction that she had lost her love. Once on a tour of Yosemite, she pitched a full-blown tantrum when she believed Eleanor was too preoccupied by reporters to attend to her. While she and Eleanor would remain forever close, Hick met another woman, a judge in the U.S. Tax Court, and shifted her ardor accordingly. For her part, Eleanor would no longer have to offer the prayer: “God give me depth enough not to hurt Hick again.”

Where does soulful love go? Souls touched by love – even the sting of love lost – seem to be so marked for as long as they live. Eleanor Roosevelt was thirty-four in 1918 when she read Lucy Mercer’s love letters to her husband. When she died forty-four years later in 1962, a faded clipping of a poem, “Psyche,” by Virginia Moore, was found on her night table.

The soul that has believed
And is deceived
Thinks nothing for a while
All thoughts sad and vile…

The soul that had believed
And was deceived
Ends by believing more
Than ever before.

Over the top of this verse Eleanor had inscribed : “1918.”

Franklin Roosevelt lost consciousness in the parlor of his Warm Springs retreat on April 12, 1945. In the mortal grip of events shaping the world at war, Franklin’s last year was lightened and sweetened by the reappearance of the widow Lucy Mercer Rutherford in his life. With his daughter Anna’s collusion Franklin and Lucy had been, unknown to Eleanor, seeing one another for months, always discreetly, always when the first lady was away. Anna, aware that her behavior approached treachery with respect to her mother, also sensed the deep communion his father felt in the presence of Lucy. Not without self-recriminations, Anna chose to serve love over propriety.

Lucy had come to Warm Springs with a portrait artist who was painting the President when he collapsed. Lucy was sitting across from Franklin when he fell. She evacuated her lodgings quickly, aware that family would soon descend. What good-byes she said or felt were abrupt and incomplete. Thoughtfully, Anna telephoned Lucy acknowledging the sadness Anna knew she must feel. Grateful to be able to express her loss to someone who might begin to understand it, Lucy Mercer wrote to console Anna on her loss – and in doing so seems to have revealed her own:

"It must be an endless comfort to you that you were able to be with him so much this past year. Every second of the day you must be conscious of the void and emptiness where there has always been – all through your life – the strength of his beloved presence so fitted with loving understanding…I have been reading over some very old letters of his – and in one he says: 'Anna is a dear fine person – I wish so much that you knew her' – Well, now we do know one another – and it is a great joy to me and I think he was happy this past year that it was so.

Forgive me for writing of things you know so much better than I – and which are sacred – and should not ever be touched by a stranger. I somehow cannot feel myself to be that, and I feel strongly that you understand.

My love to your husband – and to you – Anna darling, because you are his child and because you are yourself."

Like Eleanor’s verse about the soul deceived, Lucy’s letter to Anna remained on her bedside table for the rest of her life.

In the media climate of the late twentieth century, the amorous communions of the Roosevelts would have dominated the tabloids. Lucy Mercer would be revealed shielding her face from paparazzi as she alighted from a taxi. Hick would be belligerent with her former press colleagues when they asked exactly what kind of friendship she and the first lady shared. Some White House usher, lured by cash or the glimmer of celebrity, would tell all about late night goings and comings between the sleeping quarters on the second floor. Such exposure would certainly have aggravated the principals, but it would not have diminished or otherwise altered soulful love. The contemporary mania to expose private lovers is only partly driven by the desire to debunk public figures. More urgently, if less consciously, the media seem to want to expose the mystery of romantic love itself: its simultaneous personal necessity and public impossibility, its inevitability and disastrous consequences, the paradox of its rightness and wrongness.

Love comes to the New Yorker

Happy, by contrast, are the lovers – they exist! – who are able to live out the mystery safely distanced from the probes and glare of publicity. William Shawn, the decorous and very private editor of the New Yorker and Lillian Ross, a gifted staff writer for the magazine, were soulful lovers for over forty years. Their passionate and unconventional liaison – he was married, she was not – was deeply, soulfully gratifying and renewing to each until Shawn’s death in 1992 at eighty-five. Still wondrous at what they shared, Lillian Ross, since returned to the New Yorker, has written a memoir of her life with Shawn: Here But Not Here.

The genius of Shawn’s editorial work at the New Yorker has been widely remarked. Brendan Gill and the gnomic J. D. Salinger, among many other literary luminaries, have described and praised Shawn’s editorial gifts, but the practical, working man remains strangely elusive, mysterious. Outwardly reserved, but apparently unshockable, he welcomed a phenomenal range of originality and talent and seemed to bring out the truest and most distinctive in each writer. He wrote almost nothing himself: a few love poems for Lillian, scraps of song lyrics. His gift may have been to call out of artists the best that was in them, to let them know, usually haltingly and modestly, that he saw and felt what they did.

Shawn was a peculiar sort of heroic lover. He stood five feet six inches tall and was largely bald for most of his adult life. Photographs reveal an impassive, often bewildered face, lips rather full, eyes decidedly sad. He tended to both claustrophobia and agoraphobia, yet dwelled most of his life in Manhattan. He especially dreaded severe weather: thunderstorms and blizzards.

Lillian Ross was more robust. The New Yorker was a men’s preserve until the Second World War created staff openings which Lillian and a few other brave young women managed to fill. Since her school days she had been a resilient soul, a go-getter. A compact woman with lively features under a bob of dark curly hair, she was a hearty, life-long tennis player, comfortable living and working on her own for long spells of time. Among her family and other intimates, she was considered “cute.” Shawn saw her as “beautiful.” In college and as a young woman making her way in New York, she attracted the interest of young men, but she was always cautious about how a committed partnership might confine her.

She loved the New Yorker from the outset and felt at home writing her short, eccentric items. Shawn was part of the texture of the place. He was from the beginning an agreeable, welcoming presence for Lillian, but his full impact would only emerge gradually, rather in the manner of a photographic image becoming slowly recognizable under a bath of chemicals.

Shawn took an immediate interest in Ross’s work – but an interest clearly commensurate with its merit and promise. Later it would be Shawn who encouraged her to write sustained longer studies, such as her celebrated account of the making of a motion picture or her famous profile of Ernest Hemingway. Such projects would take Ross away from Shawn for months at a time, separating them even as Shawn was falling in love with her. With no record as a philanderer, this least impetuous of married men with three small children was supremely awkward in expressing himself to his beloved. When her long awaited piece on Hemingway was published in the magazine, Shawn took her to lunch at the Algonquin, an unprecedented treat for her, and in the course of congratulating her addressed her as “darling.” Ross was startled.

That afternoon Ross noted a gesture of Shawn’s – “choking back a sob” – that she would come to know well in the years ahead. In the weeks that followed, poems from Shawn began to appear on her desk. One evening, working together, he awkwardly blurted out that he loved her. To which, Ross wrote, “I tried to pretend I hadn’t heard what I had heard and got away as soon as possible.”

Ross’s efforts to resist Shawn’s love were substantial. Neither marriage nor an affair with a married man were part of her plans. She wished, in her words, to “go on being a selfish, quiet, dedicated, and free writer.” Slow to awaken, she knew also that she “was beginning to feel connected to him.”

In 1950, with Shawn’s assistance, Lillian took an assignment to go to Hollywood to profile the director John Huston who was then filming The Red Badge of Courage. The profile grew into a book, published the following year as Picture. The day before her departure for California, Shawn invited her to his summer residence in Bronxville to share a meal with his family. In the course of saying good-bye to her, he made his first physical gesture of love:

"He asked me to write regularly – I promised, feeling self-consciously as though I were being treated like a college-bound kid. He took my hand. His hand was clammy. He was trembling – Cecille, standing back at the house, was calling him. I was nervous and uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be there at all, yet I didn’t want to act uncaring about him. I found myself feeling sorry for him, but I admired him and loved what he was, and I was incapable of doing or saying anything falsely patronizing about him. I was bewildered. He suddenly kissed me on the mouth and made a hopeless gesture with his arm. I was in a kind of daze. Then I escaped."

Physically removed to opposite coasts for months on end, each of them preoccupied and busy, Ross and Shawn managed to grow more intimate. Hearing the sound of her ardent friend’s voice over the telephone made Lillian feel “comfortable and safe.”

"We had perfect communication. We didn’t confine ourselves to the subject of movie-making; we talked about everything. Without realizing what was happening to me, I began to cherish our talk. This man continued to understand every word I said."

When she returned to New York, her movie book a gratifying success, Lillian knew some kind of reckoning with William Shawn lay ahead. His poems began to reappear on her desk at the New Yorker. Then, quite definitively, it happened.

One day I was in my office, reading my New York Daily News, when Bill appeared. We looked at each other. It was late morning. Neither of us spoke. We went outside, got into a taxi, and, still without a word, went directly to the Plaza Hotel, got a pretty room, went to bed and stayed there for the rest of the day and evening. Everything between us was so natural, so easy, there wasn’t anything to say about it. It seemed that we had been together for years.

Now, irrevocably, they were lovers. They remained lovers for life – although not always easily or conveniently, especially at first. Almost at once Lillian felt everything a thoughtful woman feels when she finds herself actively in love with a man married and committed to someone else. They talked openly and at length about the impact of the affair on Shawn’s children. Both felt the sour weight of being dishonest. Shawn explained that he could not possibly divorce his wife and leave his family, even though what he called his “real self” was not at his home. His real self was with Lillian, and he could not imagine his life without her. Ross recalls wrenching moments from this period, especially when they would bid each other goodnight on the cold streets of Manhattan and proceed alone to their respective apartments. “Was I a dope?” Ross asks herself. “Was there a vacancy in me? Why was I not beset with guilt – or with resentment – about the woman who remained Bill’s wife?”

Something about the character and depth of Shawn’s and Ross’s love carried it beyond such common and understandable resentments. “Neither of us,” Lillian writes, “acted in these well-worn ways because we weren’t adversaries; we were lovers. We were unable to solve our problems, although we persisted in asking each other most of the unanswerable questions. I wouldn’t be spared rage or disappointment from time to time, but never, not for a moment, did I feel humiliation or pain.”

Shawn, the married one, most certainly felt humiliation and pain. Finally unable to bear the weight of so much deception, he confided his feelings for Lillian to his wife and proceeded to make arrangements to accommodate the affair into the established structure of his life. These included the installation of a separate telephone with a private line next to the bed in his room at home. From this phone he would greet Lillian on waking and would wish her a loving goodnight upon retiring. Later, he and Lillian would acquire an apartment of their own. They furnished and decorated it together, although Shawn could not always sleep there, and in time Lillian found, and the two of them raised, an adopted son from Norway.

In this greatly fulfilling, highly unconventional arrangement, Shawn and Ross managed to breakfast together frequently, take long, brisk walks in the afternoon, share intimate dinners in favored restaurants, attend the theatre, sit in jazz clubs, skate the city’s ponds and rinks, motor to country retreats on weekends. “I wasn’t aware of making any kind of fateful ‘decision,’” Ross writes. “He was in my life, as I was in his, and both of us moved ahead together. ‘For the time being’ turned out to be forty years.”

Over the course of that forty years Ross and Shawn were apparently able to sustain the pitch of devotion and intensity with which they began their soulful journey. Ross writes:

"After forty years, our love-making had the same passion, the same energies (alarming to me, at first, in our early weeks together), the same tenderness, the same inventiveness, the same humor, the same textures as it had in the beginning. It never deteriorated, our later wrinkles, blotches, and scars of age notwithstanding. We never changed."

If there is a formula for such sustained loving, Ross believes that it is “never knowingly doing anything hurtful one to the other.” “We must hold each other close,” Shawn told her, “as if there were no circumstances but only the single circumstance that we love each other and belong together.”

William Shawn was an extraordinary character. Unlike Lillian, who was a little slow reading the outward signs of his ardor and who, quite understandably, was at first bewildered once she did, Shawn never wavered in his soulful trajectory in her direction. His gift for recognizing and nurturing writers seems to have been matched with a gift for soulful love. Moreover – and consonant with the reports of many other romantic lovers – Shawn did not quite seem to feel himself, or much of a “self” at all, outside the thrall of his soulful connection to Lillian. She herself sensed this, although it is a difficult quality to transcribe. Often beset by deep melancholy, and a feeling he was somehow confined in a personal “cell,” Shawn would also experience ecstatic intimations, as when, perhaps, he would periodically “choke back a sob.” His writers sometimes felt he gave them their voice, that they were writing for him. Lillian felt that by loving her, he “gave her” what became her life. Touchingly, she refers to his “daily, improbably being.” He was grateful to her for helping him to maintain “belief in his own reality.”

“'Do you know who I am?'” he would ask me when we had made love. He would know the answer and he would say to me again, 'Please do not let me forget my own life.'”

Ross did not let him forget his life. Nor has she forgotten it. The year after Shawn’s death, she returned to work at the New Yorker. In 1995 she wrote a short incidental piece about private school fifteen-year-olds on the upper East Side. The piece, titled “The Shit-Kickers of Madison Avenue,” pleased her because the children interviewed were so forthcoming, so funny, such good company. “It was three years after Bill died,” Ross writes “and I could feel his delight in them. I could feel it.”

That real life lovers sometimes find deep, sustained fulfillment in one another – without forsaking the ecstatic pitch of their initial communion – contradicts the notion, proposed by Robert Johnson and other thoughtful Jungians, that romantic love is inherently unrealizable. Again, Johnson sees the problem lying in the lover’s projecting the very stuff of his or her immortal soul onto a mortal being. Mortals are assumed to be unable to bear such intensity and weight. In her 1993 study, Impossible Love: Or Why the Heart Must Go Wrong, Jan Bauer makes the strongest possible case for the inevitable failure of romantic love in real time in a real world.

The lovers go from the tropical heat of desire and fusion into the arctic cold of misunderstanding and separation. Work, familiar routine, and lukewarm, safe houses of friends no longer offer any comfort as the lovers ricochet back and forth between the equator and the antipodes. Not only the temperature goes through violent changes, but also our very sense of space. One moment all is huge; our hearts, our love, our souls, our minds expand to contain the entire universe…

Then, in other moments, it all retracts. We cannot share our life with that of our lover and feel a prisoner of tiny moments and tiny rooms…There is never enough time, never enough space – out there. And so the time and space grow greater within, and the passion takes up more and more room as it turns into obsession.

The point, Bauer feels, of romantic – what she calls “impossible” – love is never its own realization. The point, rather, is a necessary psychic transformation in one or both of the lovers. Just as Robert Johnson suggests that souls starved by a secular culture for intimations of divinity call on the power of romantic love as substitute, Bauer proposes that we fall into the grip of impossible love in order to change ourselves, to liberate some psychic potential which the lover is now ready to bring fully to consciousness. “Every love is a revolution,” Bauer writes, “in that genuine love always brings about deep change.” Romantic lovers are at once mesmerized by and worried sick over the startling inappropriateness of their situation: My student! My doctor! Wrong age! Wrong sex! Wrong race! Ineligible! Too good to be true! The abject unacceptability of one’s soul mate in the waking world hurts and chastens lovers miserably, but these very miseries and dislocations may ultimately awaken one to what is really coming to birth and what must necessarily die in one’s emerging self.

Seen this way, romantic love is a means or symptom of some larger, deeper psychological process. For actual lovers, however, it is always an achingly sweet yearning for the beloved. Moreover, as Lillian Ross’s memoir attests, that yearning is sometimes resolved in a beautiful communion. That communion is both in-the-world and out-of-this-world: in Ross’s words, “here but not here.”

It would appear that achievable soulful love is more likely to occur to lovers who are relatively lightly tethered to the “real” world in the first place. William Shawn, for instance, seems not to have been kidding when he asked Ross to help him remember he existed.

Tracy and Hepburn

The legendary film star Spencer Tracy seems also to have had trouble coming to terms with his existence. Outwardly, he was phenomenally successful. His long career first as a Broadway actor and then a movie star took no downward turns. His nine Oscar nominations for Best Actor are still the industry record, and critics were and are uniformly admiring. Fellow actor James Cagney noted Tracy’s uncommon ability to shed his own identity in a film role and enter completely into a character – a gift which made him, nearly alone among his famous contemporaries, impossible to mimic. This very gift made the characters he played seem utterly real on screen, his acting somehow effortless.

A heavy drinker given to periodic binges, Tracy was less gifted in managing his life away from the sound stage. He was unhappily and unfaithfully married when he met the love of his life, Katherine Hepburn, when they co-starred in the 1941 hit romantic comedy, Woman of the Year. They would never marry but remained devoted romantic partners until Tracy’s death twenty-six years later. Tracy and Hepburn were paired romantically in nine films over the course of their life together. Critics and viewers alike were stirred by an unmistakable authenticity in the underlying bond between their screen personae. Always discreet and undisclosing about their personal lives together, they managed somehow to convey a robust, legitimate, irrepressible love on screen.

In 1966 Tracy, who had been seriously ill for years, emerged out of convalescence to co-star with Hepburn in what would be his last film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In it Tracy and Hepburn play established, well-to-do parents of a much cherished only daughter who falls in love with a young black doctor and wants to marry him. As the film plots the course of the young couples’ parents coming to terms with an interracial marriage, Tracy’s character has occasion to tell the mother of his daughter’s suitor the depths of his feelings for his screen wife (Hepburn). To her accusation that he’s “a burnt out shell of a man who can’t even remember what it’s like to love a woman,” Tracy responds:

"You’re wrong as you can be…I know exactly how he feels about her, and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, that your son feels for my daughter that I didn’t feel for (Hepburn). Old? Yes. Burnt out. Certainly. But I can tell you the memories are still there. Clear, intact, indestructible. And they’ll be there if I live to be110…The only thing that matters is what they feel and how much they feel for each other. And if it’s half of what we felt, that’s everything…"

At which point on film, on the set, and surely in Tracy’s deep personal interior, he is overcome; his voice cracks and his face is clenched at the brink of real tears. Everyone in the cast and crew was electrified, transported. No one in the studio doubted Tracy was talking about his experience of Hepburn. It is a remarkable moment, at once story and real life. Three weeks after the picture was completed, Tracy died.

Not long afterward, in a television interview, Katherine Hepburn observed, “He found life difficult…he found acting easy.”

Soulful love is never easy. The soul aches to love, but the searching, the longing, the ecstatic communion, and the unbearable prospect thereafter of anything less are often unbearable. So finally, love is indeed a problem, but a problem fervidly and fatefully sought. To deny or suppress love will send the soul into a frenzy. Outwardly moderate and disciplined lives will be undermined by strange callings, wanton desires. Puritanical regimens, whether personal or cultural, will inexplicably fester with promiscuity, pornography, every manner of forbidden desire.

To do the opposite, to affirm love, releases its own set of trials and rigors. Where there is love, there is trouble. But it may be trouble we need, and, blessedly, there is more than trouble. There is the release, the vivid experience of the most transporting ecstasy the soul can know. The beloved, like Dante’s Beatrice, can lead a soulful lover to the brink of real paradise and beyond.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Soulful Beauty of Bad News: Ten Reflections

The Soulful Beauty of Bad News

For years when I was a school headmaster I made it a personal mission to tell our students and – especially – their parents that they should not only expect bad news from time to time, but that they should treasure it for the opportunities it can provide to deepen them. We are a school, after all, and losses, set-backs, and outright failure are crucial life lessons. What frail contenders, what hothouse flowers you will be, I told my students, if you do not sometimes have to endure disappointment, inexplicable hurt, and even injustice. Spared such essential tests and trials, a person is likely to grow up unable to distinguish between a disappointment and a tragedy.

Not getting into a first-choice college, not receiving a good grade despite phenomenal effort, not making a starting line-up, not winning an election, not being asked to a dance, not getting a particular job or an expected raise – these are all disappointments, but they do not begin to approach tragedy. I had developed this take-your-lumps prescription into a rather fervent orthodoxy when, humiliatingly, I had to take one.

My oldest daughter was a senior in high school and was in the process of deciding on the colleges to which she would apply. This was a bright young woman with good tested ability. She had done rather well in her college preparatory program, and she had developed a precocious interest in stagecraft and literature. She was, I felt, a strong candidate even for very selective schools. At the time, truthfully, I was apt to describe her prospects more forcefully: my daughter was, considered fully and objectively, perhaps the best college candidate on the planet.

Quite thoughtfully, she had devised a list of colleges and universities, all of them quite good, with distinctive programs in drama. I looked at her list and advised that she apply also to Harvard. Why, my daughter wondered? My answer was certainly spurious and unhelpful. Why? Because (I never said) Harvard seemed Olympian, elite beyond elite, lofty, remote, rarefied, “the best” and thus, though I knew far too little about it, a suitable place for my first born.

Dutifully, if also bewildered, she did apply to Harvard, and when on the early notification date she was “deferred,” I literally lost my mind. My wife phoned me at school to tell me the news, and as soon as the message registered – deferred: not admitted yet or possibly ever – I put down the phone and made my way outside the building. My school is surrounded by an imposing forest of very tall maple trees, and I found myself pounding an erratic path through this forest in the damp grey half-light of a December afternoon. I don’t know exactly where I walked, but I walked for a long time, well into darkness. I recall that I was talking to myself, out loud. I addressed the several members of the Harvard admissions office. The sharpest, most withering of my observations would be retained in the letter I would write when I returned indoors. I struggled to stay on the civil high ground, though I longed to express my incredulity with the burning outrage I was feeling. Bright images inflamed my wrath: my daughter belting out “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” as the curtain closed on Act One of Cabaret; in her linen peasant dress confessing, as Juliet, the depth of her love for Romeo; at the kitchen table working so hard, so late, framed by haphazard towers of books; coaxing the inner city third graders through the play she had written for them; the inky column of her astonishing poem about the eternal ascent of Icarus. Buggers! Bastards! (Restraint failed me. Vast, knowing perspective failed me.) Didn’t I, of all people, know a Harvard undergraduate when I raised one?

I walked aimlessly through a darkened wood, fuming and spewing like a deranged person – no, not like one. It was hours before I was fit for human company, days before I understood just how far off center I had strayed; and even longer before I came fully to terms with the fact that I had taken the most workaday kind of parental lump with less grace than had any parent I have encountered in thirty-three years of school life. I am grateful that my daughter was spared the worst of it. That evening she explained to me that she did not really think Harvard was right for her, and she was not, given the quality of other applicants she knew, surprised she had been passed over. This, it dawned on me finally, was the measure of my daughter. This was her quality.


We know we have souls, because we long for things, and it is the soul that is longing. It is sweet and renewing to evoke the soul’s longing – for what is beautiful, for what is vast, deep, and mysterious, for others we love. We also know we have souls because we ache. But we do not want to ache, even to think about or to remember aching. Except at very safe distances, we don’t think about aching, and when we do we are seeking remedy, to make it stop.

The biblical book of Job is a soulful and beautiful story. From a safe, fabled distance it tells of a God-related, thoroughly good man who suffers unbearable and undeserved injury, loss, and pain. Understood a little, Job’s story distances us from our darkest doubts and dreads. Understood fully, Job’s story opens up doubt and dread like a terrible, limitless cavern.

What exactly does Job teach? Is there wisdom, comfort, or any other good to be derived from the existential reality that, in the words of Rabbi Kushner's fine book, bad things happen to good people? Bad things certainly happened to Job. Without warning, catastrophe claimed his family, fortune, and worldly security. Before he could fully grieve for his losses, the same malignant force visited his body, painfully plaguing his flesh with suppurating sores. What could Job do? What could anyone do? He laments, he hurts, he asks out loud: why was I born? What is the point?

Like all mortals with a capacity to think, Job wants reasons, explanations. Of course there is a clear reason for his trouble. Satan himself has stripped Job of his comfort, health, and kin in order to prove to God that no mortal will acknowledge Him unconditionally. But while he is no more than a helpless agent in a Satanic test, Job would need a cosmic perspective to see this, and he is a mortal. Like the rest of us, he looks to the world he knows for answers. A number of friends, philosophers all, offer sensible explanations to the effect that surely Job did something to provoke such harsh treatment. Job’s interlocutors know that God is great and infinitely just. To be so terribly stricken, Job must have offended God. But the reader of Job knows that he did no such thing. Instead, he – or his rectitude – offended Satan, and Satan, himself a creature of God, is free to think and do as he pleases. As it happens, it pleases Satan to set up on his own prideful turf and to challenge God. Unaware of his part in the game, Job is left to suffer and ache. To his courageous credit, he is unresponsive to his friends’ bromides, and he continues to raise his soulful complaint.

Job complains until God answers him out of a whirlwind. In his terrifying majesty, God neither explains nor eases Job’s wretched condition. Instead he reminds Job of His vastness, complexity, and power, a context beyond Job’s, or any mortal’s capacity to comprehend. This Job understands: the limits of his mortal understanding. Nor has he been wrong to ache. To ache in such circumstances is profoundly, soulfully true. Seeing this, Job ceases to complain, though not to suffer, and humbly effaces himself before God. In the epilogue to The Book of Job, written, scholars believe, by another hand at a later date, Job’s fortunes are abundantly restored, suggesting in a reassuring way that God doesn’t let good souls down, even by worldly measures. The soulful lesson, however, is not the restoration but Job’s prior realization that abject misery and injustice may be beyond all intelligent reckoning: that while such devastation may not be fully understood, it may be fully felt. The very wrongness – and truth – of Job’s affliction lay not in a cerebral reckoning of the unfairness of what Satan did, but in what Job unflinchingly felt.

Western peoples enter the new millennium embedded in a culture that positively denies heroic feeling. It is a culture that wants its children to “grow up” out of such feeling into cool objectivity and productivity. When such feeling, the soul’s very language, cannot be denied or suppressed, the diverted and desperate expressions of that feeling are medicated into torpor or to death. A soul-denying culture wants no strong feeling of any kind, whether ecstatic, erotic, or horrific. A soul-denying culture does not want us either to long or to ache. I must hasten to add that the denial includes those pastoral and therapeutic voices that claim the curative benefits of “expressing your feelings.” Upon a little reflection it can be seen that the presumed therapeutic benefit of “releasing” strong feelings is that they will go away. This is the point of view that wants to see sexist cultural forces damming up little boys’ tears and fears to the point that they erupt in gunfire on school playgrounds. This is the habit of mind that believes once the dreadful feelings stored deep in the psychic pockets of the victims of every form of abuse are released in a satisfying catharsis – fountains of tears, deep exhalations, primal screams – a benign and viable Normality will prevail.

Such thinking misconstrues the true relationship between the soul and its practical circumstances, between feeling and real health. The point of intense feeling is not to obliterate itself. Nor is the point of feeling, however exquisite or aggravating, to change its bearers, to medicate them or to behaviorally reengineer them so that they no longer feel troubling or inconvenient things. The point of feeling is to register the soulful truth: thrilling alignment or worrying misalignment with essential realities and beauty, rapturous union with, or a despairing isolation from, other souls. Soulful feeling and only soulful feeling bears these messages. To ache and to long tell us the truth about where we stand in the world. There is no other way to know.


Soulful feeling is intense and inherently dangerous. Such feeling registers all manner of trouble and uncertainty. But the feelings are not themselves the trouble; the feelings, again, let us know what is true, what is really there. To deny true feeling, a culturally normative reflex in our age, is to shoot the messenger bearing troubling yet important news. To reverse this soul-numbing condition, we must set ourselves to doing something likely to feel unfamiliar, alien. We must try to open ourselves to, even welcome, some very “bad” feelings and troubling conditions. We might begin to explore such interior states – feeling lost, at sea, contradicted, debunked, left behind, divorced, passed over, or fired – for what soulful messages we might be missing but badly need. Today the quickest way to dismiss another person on the street is to call him a “loser.” But the truth of the matter is that all of us are seriously lost at crucial junctures in our lives. Moreover, the depth and extent of our lost-ness is directly proportional to the saving value of what we find next. A good start to recovering soulfulness might be to recognize ourselves for the “losers” we periodically must be.

Very recently I found myself a big loser. Not incidentally, this occurred at a time when I was especially full of myself. It was spring break at school, and I had planned a solo vacation to Europe. The trip was to begin with some boys’ school business in London, then a first-ever trip to Amsterdam where a much anticipated train ride down the Rhine would take me to Munich to visit a few former students, then another leisurely train to Paris for a few days, then home. The prospect of this trip – the distance, the strangeness, the solitude, the fabled cities – thrilled me. Moreover, the actual experience unfurled before me with an eerily satisfying perfection. The meetings, connections, the striking look and feel of things matched my preconceptions of them with an almost déjà vu precision. I remember the agreeable realization as I was leaving my hotel in London with the collar of my dark overcoat turned up against the cold, that I felt like Harry Haller, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, moving anonymously between great cities.

As I anticipated, the greatest pleasure was the trains. For some reason, the sleek, velvety smooth trains I rode were nearly empty. I had an enclosed six-passenger compartment to myself on every leg of the trip. I lounged alone in the elegant dining cars with their wonderfully heavy plates and cups and silver. Outside the window, ancient winter light cast a steely sheen on the Rhine and helped convey the stony weight of the castles standing sentinel high over its banks. Exactly, I mean exactly, as I had thought.

Perhaps my sense of isolation, even my powers of observation, were heightened by the fact that I was in the process of writing – actually finishing – a novel. The novel told the story of a marriage from three different points of view, and I was very full of this story, and, again, of myself, as I penned page after page into my hardbound writing book, now and then looking up, as if in a dream, at window framed views of the Rhine Valley in late winter. By the time I left Munich, I had finished the novel, way ahead of schedule. I had placed my married lovers in a mythic structure, and my heart felt as if it were dissolving into that great form as I inscribed my final words. Moreover – blessedly – I could read it all over, savor it, on the all-day train from Munich to Paris.

In the compartment of that train, a few minutes before my arrival in Paris, I awoke from a nap. I began to straighten up and pull my things together. I had spread papers and books over the seats, and I clearly recall deciding to keep the magazines I had bought in London. The last item zipped into my bag was the Robertson Davies novel I was reading. No need, I felt, to keep the newspapers, and so I left them strewn on the seats.

I had not been to Paris in twenty-five years, but its settled, elegant whiteness came familiarly back to me. Yet again this trip felt as much a dream as waking reality. It was dark outside when I arrived at my hotel. As I unpacked my bag, I remember trying to name or classify what I was feeling, how I had been feeling since I awoke on the train. It was a good feeling, almost intoxication. I felt slowed down, full – and this was it! – too full of good things. When I had taken everything out of the bag and spread it over the surface of the bed, I knew. There was a terrible current at the back of my head, a sickening flash behind the eyes. There was no manuscript book. It was not there. A year and a half’s work.

Later I could be seen at the concierge’s station in the hotel lobby. An observer would have noted a tense, concerned man asking about how to contact the Lost Properties department at the Gard de L’Est. But earlier, as I stood over my belongings, my palms running horribly over the empty ribbing of my open bag, I was insane. For twenty minutes, like a robot, I placed all my belongings in the bag, zipped it up, then unzipped it and took them out again. Each time I did this my manuscript book was missing.

I was in Paris for three days, but I was not really, wholly there. I willed myself outside, to walk, to observe, once or twice a day to eat. I made, for me, elaborate, thoroughgoing attempts to recover my novel, and I must say the authorities were wonderfully, touchingly responsive. But I never for a second believed I would find it, despite its impressive heft and my name and address on the flyleaf. All I can recall is walking the peopled boulevards in the slanting sunlight of late afternoons, feeling something like a sack of feathery ashes where my heart and innards had been.

It was lost! I had lost it. I was a loser. Weeks, months passed, and I would still dissolve into this state of loss – I can feel it now, as I remember and write. Slowly, aggravatingly, I began honestly to ask myself why, not how. (How was obvious; it was under the newspapers.) Why? What did I need to lose? This book? The story it told? Myself as a writer? Myself who dreams on trains? Myself who feels too full, too full of himself? I will never know, nor does knowing matter. But I feel, still feel, the enormity of that loss. I have felt less, and for less time, at the death of beloved persons. And my loss was a kind of death. I would say that it was unbearable, but I bore it, bear it. I am not a crier, but when I lost my story – to me so nuanced, so surprising, seemingly pulled out of me rather than created – my deep interior cried and cried. I did not cry out, I cried in. And this is who I am now, a person who died a bit and felt it, who knows this, too.


It is our very nature to be lost from time to time. Arnold Gesell (1880-1961), the great American developmental psychologist, spent decades observing, recording, and filming the patterns of children’s behavior, and he arrived at a number of clear, instructive conclusions. The first is that, while genes and culture both shape a person’s development, the genetically encoded scheme is far more formative than are culture and environment. For one thing the genetic scheme unfolds in a fixed, invariable sequence. Just as the embryo’s heart always develops before the brain, and the brain before the limbs and extremities, essential behavioral patterns progress in a fixed order:
[The child’s] nervous system matures by stages and natural sequences. He sits before he stands; he babbles before he talks; he fabricates before he tells the truth; he draws a circle before he draws a square; he is selfish before he is altruistic; he is dependent on others before he achieves dependence on self. All his capacities, including his morals, are subject to the laws of growth.
(TD, Crain,18)

Environmental circumstances, Gesell maintained, can affect the extent to which a person’s developmental schedule is realized, but environment neither creates nor orders the sequence.

Put simply, Gesell held that human beings are more evolved than they are constructed. Moreover, their evolution reveals important structural patterns. Chief among them is the alternating recurrence of psychic stability and instability. As the body and nervous system become bigger and progressively more complex, and as the environment correspondingly demands new and more elaborate behaviors, a person necessarily undergoes periods of incoherence and uncertainty. Gesell and his associates interpreted such tempestuous passages as the “terrible twos” and early adolescence not as avoidable “problems” in development but rather as the necessary disintegration of a no longer adequate adaptation to one’s place in the scheme of things. The two-year-old is taking in data both from the environment and from his own interior that overwhelm the hard-won equilibrium of the one-year-old. With persistence and grace, the disintegration of the old scheme will be replaced by a more comprehensive, more adaptive, more conscious reintegration, but until that new scheme is familiar and effectively practiced, there is an all-being sense of frustration and loss.

The soul knows this. The soul feels the loss of the old order just as surely as it will one day warm gladly to the new. We ache, grieve, mourn, despair, grow fitful, endure periods of flat, numbed helplessness when we are temporarily or otherwise out of alignment with what we know best and need most. To live at all, or at all consciously, is to experience spells of misery and disorientation. In their published dialogue, We’ve had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy, and the World is Getting Worse, James Hillman and Michael Ventura liken these dark and unsettling passages to “molting.”

Ventura: When you’re in your forties and you hit what they call midlife crisis, when you’re going through a kind of adolescence again, because you’re breaking a bunch of crusts – that’s belittled…

…And if you turn around and say, “You’re god damn right I am, and you’d better stay out of its way,” then you’re seen as nuts…But what you’re really saying is, “I’m molting.”

Hillman: “I’m molting, and I’m at the beginning of something, and when I’m at the beginning of something I am a fool.”
(H&V, 24)

Here Ventura and Hillman advance one of archetypal psychology’s most counter-intuitive and challenging themes: that the human trajectory is not necessarily forward, progressive, higher and brighter. The very idea of psychological “development” may be no more than a wishful attempt to keep the fullness of our being at bay. To accept the saving inevitability of bad news and that, in Hillman’s words, “growth is always loss” calls into question our era’s need, or at least eagerness, to see any troubled condition as a result of prior, and presumably avoidable, ill-treatment. As the cheerful juvenile delinquents in the musical West Side Story sing to the cop sent to correct them:

Dear kindly sergeant Krupke
Ya gotta understand
It’s just our bringing up-ke
That gets us outta hand
Our fathers all were junkies
Our mothers all were drunks
Golly Moses, naturally we’re punks…

The bright promise of history-as-causality, of seeing present stress as the (reversible) result of childhood deprivation and abuse, dims considerably with the realization that abusive parents are themselves former children with abusive stories to tell. As therapists and their clients move generationally down the family hall of mirrors, the assignable culprit, the clear cause, disappears into the mists of the remote past.

Hillman proposes an alternative view of the relationship of a person’s early life to his realized being. He resurrects, seriously, the Platonic notion that “the soul knows who we are from the beginning.” To take the soul seriously is also to take seriously the idea of personal destiny.

Hillman: …take Manalete who, when he was nine years old was supposedly a very frightened little skinny boy who hung around his mother in the kitchen. So he becomes the greatest bullfighter of our age. Psychology will say, “yes, he became a great bullfighter because he was such a puny little kid that he compensated by being a macho hero…”

…But suppose you take it the other way and read a person’s life backwards. Then you say, Manalete was the greatest bullfighter, and he knew that. Inside his psyche sensed at the age of nine that his fate was to meet thousand pound black bulls with great horns. Of course he fucking well held onto his mother! Because he couldn’t hold that capacity – at nine years old your fate is all there and you can’t handle it. It’s too big. It’s not that he was inferior; he had a great destiny.
(H&V, 18-19)

Archetypal thinkers like Hillman fault developmental psychology for its timid and ultimately unhelpful tendency to reduce the pains and losses essential to realizing our souls to symptoms and syndromes. In the prevailing therapeutic climate the emphasis is to counsel or medicate the person out of the problem instead of supporting one’s immersion into its meaning and value. In the developmental, therapeutic approach to well being there is a powerful, if unstated, assumption that we are not supposed to suffer wounds. But from a soulful perspective our wounds – including our most terrible wounds – define and complete our being. No humane person would want to deny the depth and awfulness of the abuses, privations, and neglect undeservedly visited on children – or on anybody. The soulful point is not that being undeservedly hurt is the crucible of personal fulfillment. But we must come fully to terms with such wounds when they are incurred – or else be forever crippled, life-long victims. And in fact, we all incur wounds. Hillman imagines himself as a figure in the darkest scenario: the son of an enraged, brutal father who beats and sexually abuses him.

"And I go on remembering those violations. I remain a victim in my memory. My memory continues to make me a victim…it continues to keep me in the position of the child, because my memory is locked into the child’s view…It isn’t that the abuse didn’t happen – I am not denying that it happened or that I need to believe that it did concretely happen. But I may be able to think about the brutality – reframe it, as they say – as an initiating experience. These wounds that he caused have done something to me to make me understand punishment, make me understand vengeance, make me understand submission, make me understand the depth of rage between fathers and sons...and I took part of that. I was in that…I’ve entered fairy tales and I’ve entered myths, literature, movies. With my suffering I’ve entered an imaginal, not just a traumatic world."
(H&V, 27)

Facing our own woundedness squarely allows us to commune with the great wounded souls who have preceded us; our particular complaint becomes historic, shared, universal. Often there is an intimation of greatness in this. Hillman likens our accrued wounds to rocks which, settled in our deep interior, become part of our essence. It is thus a terrible mistake to try to cast them out, smooth them over, or melt them away. Even while we learn the soulful lessons of our respective wounds, even as we learn to place them in larger, clarifying contexts, we must feel them, we must feel everything.


In addition to our wounds, Hillman believes we must feel loneliness and isolation. This view, also, opposes him to our era’s therapeutic orthodoxies which aim for unbroken cheerfulness and togetherness. In an era which has reduced solitude to a pathology, the soul can find no quiet and still place from which to take stock, no perspective from which to see that togetherness is not the same thing as relatedness.

Hillman devotes a chapter of his book, The Soul’s Code, to the premise that we do not come into this world as a tiny bundle of psychic potential in order to “grow up.” Drawing on both Jewish mysticism and Platonist metaphysics in The Republic, Hillman makes the counter claim: that our souls are intact and profoundly complete even before they are embodied. The existential challenge therefore is not to grow up in an every more complex and demanding real world, but rather to grow down into the limitations and snarls of earthly existence when the soul would vastly prefer the paradise out of which it descended. This notion of growing down into the “real world” as a kind of soulful exile from paradise is supported not only by the Kabbalist book of Zohar and Plato’s myth of Er, both cited by Hillman, but also by the Freudian interpretation of the fetus’s expulsion at birth from a warm amniotic bath in which it floated in an effortless state of self-sufficiency. The soulful reality may be that Adam and Eve’s banishment from Eden in the biblical Genesis is the lot of every man and woman.

To accept Hillman’s premise that the soul “grows down” into a bewildering and often unwelcoming world is to accept the fact of loneliness. To be human is to be at times profoundly lonely. This loneliness is not merely situational. It may be due to no assignable lapse in nurture or in societal care. Loneliness may be archetypal and thus unavoidable: a core component of being alive on earth. Hillman suggests that every child is profoundly lonely. Even as they mature, few people can find adequate words to describe the condition.

Moments of dejection drop us into a pool of loneliness. Waves of intense loneliness occur as aftershocks of childbirth, of divorce, of the death of a long-loved partner. The soul pulls back, mourns alone. Twinges of loneliness accompanying even a marvelous birthday celebration and a victorious accomplishment…Nothing seems to hold against the drop. All the networking that has interlaced our extension outward and downward into the world – family, friends, neighbors, lovers, little routines, and the results of years of work – seem to count for nothing. We feel ourselves curiously depersonalized, very far away. Exiled.
(Soul’s Code, 54)

Inspired artists and entertainers are sometimes able to give voice and image to archetypal loneliness – or, more specifically, to the intimation of the lost paradise which is at the heart of loneliness. Such artists seem to cast a kind of spell over us, to hold out, for perhaps the duration of a scene or a song, what Robert Johnson calls “slender threads” connecting us from where we are to the Golden World. Hillman contrasts the careers of two such soulful exiles of the mid-twentieth century, the child star and chanteuse Judy Garland and the exotic dancer Josephine Baker. From her earliest vaudeville turns as the toddler Frances Gumm, Garland was able to evoke an ethereal, better, lost world – somewhere over the rainbow, a place where bright, smiley youth win out, where the world could be transformed if you could only put on a show. Later in her foreshortened life, she would mesmerize audiences of sympathetic exiles, especially gay men stranded in homophobic mid century, by her wrenching evocations of being lost, left, stranded, broken. Baker too had the gift of lifting out of ordinary reality those who beheld her. In her case the promise was aphroditic liberation, unbridled sensuality, jungle fever.

Hillman suggests that her gifts, adoring admirers, and staggering celebrity aside, Garland could not finally bear to “grow down” into the waking world. The experience of workaday reality was too harsh. She sought instead good dreams, impossible love, narcotic and alcoholic oblivion. Even her self-destruction and flight carried her exile fans away.

Hillman contends that Baker was somehow more robust. She quite self-consciously elected to “grow down” into the world, to engage it practically in love and work. She forged intimate, often sexual, relations with hundreds of people, both men and women. She worked courageously for the French resistance against the Nazi occupation. She fought early and hard for African American civil rights. She adopted and brought up eleven children of different national backgrounds and races. In middle life the sex goddess foreswore beauty and vanity. She let her head go partly bald, reported her age as older than she was, lost herself in others’ needs. Baker, Hillman claims, may have discovered the secret for soulfully “growing down” into an imperfect world: “giving back what circumstances gave you by means of gestures that declare your full attachment to this world.” When unbearable feelings of loss and hopelessness opened up like a dreadful void, Garland searched frantically for a quick ascent; Baker let herself down and through the void, into history and the world.


There are truly dark nights of the soul. The strongest narratives in Hebrew and Christian scripture make this case: that loneliness and suffering are central to life and that, experienced fully and consciously, suffering reveals the beauty and very meaning of being alive.

The first “historic” biblical narratives in Genesis are the stories of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Whether read as divine utterance, historical narrative, moral fable, or fertile crescent anthropology, the stories carry an unsettling psychological force; they resonate powerfully in this, and in possibly every preceding, historical era.

The ancient Hebrew figures with whom God established his covenant are decidedly un-heroic. The abiding reality of their lives was not glory or prosperity or even comfort; it was trial and loss. Abraham, to whom God first revealed Himself, was uprooted from familiar lands, troubled by his nephew Lot and was sadly without an heir and successor until in very old age, he is granted a son, Isaac. Then, inexplicably God called Abraham to make a blood sacrifice of his son. Seemingly because he was willing, however miserably, to do it, God spares Isaac, and great promises of future blessings and longevity are made to Abraham and those of his line.

Years later Isaac’s own twin sons Jacob and Esau would fall out over their birthright and inheritance. Jacob, the younger twin, is more cunning than his brother and, with his mother’s help, tricks Esau out of both his inheritance and his father’s personal blessing. But the plan is imperfect. Fearing his twin’s reprisals, young Jacob flees his home and treks hundreds of miles over uncertain terrain in the direction of an uncle who might take him in. Jacob’s short cuts and deceptions make an unattractive story – but we understand it, just as we understand his ensuing loss.

At the very dawn of his manhood, Jacob is reduced to nothing. Moreover, his prospects are terrible. An unattached youthful traveler was likely to fall prey to any number of calamities: wild animals, hostile tribes, murderers and thieves. He had lost his home and safety. He had lost his mother. There were hundreds of miles and countless days and nights in the wilderness ahead of him. On one particularly dark night of his soul, Jacob had a vision or a dream. It was a vision that would sustain him for a while and then, later, sustain Israel throughout the centuries.

"Jacob set out from Beersheba and went on his way towards Harran. He came to a certain place and stopped there for the night, because the sun had set; and taking one of the stones there, he made it a pillow for his head and lay down to sleep. He dreamt that he saw a ladder, which rested on the ground with its top reaching to heaven, and angels of God were going up and down upon it. The Lord was standing beside him and said, 'I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. This land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants. They shall be countless as the dust upon the earth, and you shall be spread far and wide, to north and south, to east and west…'

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, 'Truly the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.' Then he was afraid and said, 'How fearsome is this place! This is no other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven.'"
(Genesis 28: 10-21)

Alone and desolate as a young man could be, Jacob envisions a ladder ascending to heaven. While it is not yet his destiny to ascend himself, he is granted a rare and powerful insight: that the most dreadful place on earth is the very gate of heaven, and God is there. This experience deepens Jacob, but it does not comfort him: “How fearsome is this place!”

Jacob will survive and even prosper. In the years to follow he works doubly hard to win a wife and his uncle’s favor. Good fortune is followed by calamity. Later as a man of family and considerable means, he flees his Uncle’s house with the hope of returning to his ancestral home. His twin, however, is rumored to be marching to meet him with a small army. Homeless, deviled by both a troubled past and a dubious future, he endures another solitary night in the wilderness.
Genesis:During the night Jacob rose, took his two wives, his two slave-girls, and his eleven sons, and crossed the ford of Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the gorge with all that he had. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him there till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not throw Jacob, he struck him in the hollow of his thigh, so that Jacob’s hip was dislocated as they wrestled. The man said, “let me go, for day is breaking,” but Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He said to Jacob, “What is your name?” and he answered “Jacob.” The man said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you strove with God and with men and prevailed.”

When Jacob is lost, when he is a loser, he contends; he opens himself up to terror and doubt for whatever he is meant to find in them. For his soulful tenacity Jacob is renamed: Israel, or “he who struggles with God.”

In the generations to follow, the Hebrew people will become Israel, and their story is an extended record of struggles with God. Jacob will live to see his beloved and favored son Joseph abandoned and sold into Egyptian servitude by his jealous brothers. In Egypt, Joseph is falsely accused of making unwanted advances on his master’s wife, and he is cast into prison for years. Only his gift for divining the meaning of dreams restores him to favor with pharaoh, and these very gifts save Egypt from a debilitating famine and the house of Jacob from extinction.

There is no biblical or historical end to Israel’s struggle with God – which, however unwelcome to modern western sensibilities, is the point of the narrative. Centuries after Jacob’s kin migrate to Goshen in Egypt, they are gradually enslaved. Moses’ heroic effort to unite and liberate them defines the very heart of Israel’s story. The Exodus has terrific cinematic appeal: an infant savior rescued in the reeds, God appearing in a burning bush, spectacular plagues visited on the oppressors, a divided sea, manna in the wilderness, water miraculously spouting from bare rock, a mountain shrouded by smoke. But at its core, the Exodus, too, is a story of relentless struggle and doubt. Moses does not believe he has the personal gifts to liberate the Hebrews in Egypt, nor, most of the time, do the Hebrews. Before and after the Red Sea parts for them, before and after food in abundance appears in the desert, before and after the Ten Commandments are imparted, the Hebrew people despair of their future. They long for their settled servitude in Egypt. When advance scouts reenter their ancestral lands in Canaan and take the measure of Canaanite inhabitants, their report back to Moses was that retaking the land of Abraham was impossible. Not one exiled Hebrew born in Egypt would live to enter the Promised Land.

For Israel and for, perhaps, all of us there is struggle forever ahead. Great opulence and majesty are achieved for exactly the historical duration necessary to create unbearable longing and loss when they dissolve into inevitable calamity, warfare, and civil strife. The glorious unification of Israel under King David and Solomon lasted for a mere seventy years before collapsing into ruinously divisive civil war. The divided states of Israel and Judah would in turn be overrun by Assyria and then Babylon. By the sixth century BC, even the symbolic center of the Hebrews’ faith, the temple built by Solomon, was razed to rubble by Nebuchadnezzar. Some Hebrews were assimilated, their heritage forever lost. The faithful were exiled and dispersed.

In this calamitous twilight of biblical Israel as a sovereign nation, a new and prescient strain of prophecy surfaced among the troubled Hebrews. Isaiah was a late eighth century BC witness to the political decline of Judah, the surviving Hebrew kingdom after its northern neighbor, Israel, fell to the Assyrians in 722. Little Judah had higher hopes. Capable, its kings believed, of effective alliances with surrounding superpowers, the political establishment believed it could negotiate a future. And didn’t Judah’s capitol, Jerusalem, house the Temple itself, and did not the Living God reside in its inner sanctum?

Isaiah saw larger forces at work. As a young man he had a transporting vision of God as the magisterial God of all creation, all peoples. Behind his anthropomorphic visage, the tribal God of Abraham was a mere mask for a staggeringly vast, supreme and only God.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts:
The whole earth is full of his glory.
(Isaiah 6:3)

This God was enormous, pervasive, ultimate – too complex and comprehensive to be wheedled for personal or even national favors. Isaiah saw the hand of God in the advances of the dreaded enemies. God, he proclaimed, worked that way, too. The appropriate response to such a god was to worship and submit, not to plot and strategize.

Tradition holds that Isaiah was executed by the royal authorities before Jerusalem fell. About a century and a half later, among the exiles in Babylon an unidentified prophet from Isaiah’s school, so-called Second Isaiah, advanced the notion that the accumulated suffering of Israel could not be tidily reduced to the sins of the fathers or to social injustices generally. Israel’s suffering was neither a great misfortune nor a punishment. The suffering was – and this could not have been easy to hear – Israel’s very purpose. Suffering is redemption, full human realization, the point. Second Isaiah establishes the redemptive nature of suffering in four strange and beautiful “servant songs.” The first Isaiah had years earlier prophesied that a redeemer of mankind would emerge from among the ruined and dislocated Hebrews after Israel and Judah were destroyed.

Then a shoot shall grow from the stock of Jesse*
And a branch shall spring from his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
A spirit of wisdom and understanding,
A spirit of counsel and power…
(Isaiah 10:33-4)

Christians of course believe Jesus is the Messiah prophesied by Isaiah. Moreover, Jesus is the suffering servant proposed by Second Isaiah:

Yet on himself he bore our sufferings,
Our torments he endured,
While we counted him smitten by God,
struck down by disease and misery;
but he was pierced for our transgressions,
tortured for our iniquities;
the chastisement he bore is health for us
and by his scourging we are healed.
We had all strayed like sheep,
Each of us had gone his own way
But the Lord laid upon him
The guilt of us all.
(Isaiah 53:4-6)

Christians the world over recite a creed on their Sabbath to the effect that Christ suffered and died for their sins so that they may have eternal life. This creed is more readily recited than understood. It is a true paradox and mystery – that suffering and death make life – and it is the core tenet of Christianity.

C. S. Lewis, a gifted explainer, sees the mystery of redemptive suffering as a means of escaping an existential hole or pit. An all-loving God creates humankind as a sheer gift. Part of the gift is freedom – freedom either to respond to life in God-serving and others-serving ways or to be delightfully self-serving. Because being self-serving is up to a point, delightful, it is easy and seductive to do so. Freely choosing self over God and others alienates one from God, however. We are, Lewis argues, soulfully aware of our lapses; we are chafed by conscience even as we drift pleasingly into self-satisfaction. The more pleased we are with ourselves, the more distanced from God we become, the more inclined to assume that we are self-created and thus responsible ultimately and only to ourselves. As we proceed into self-centeredness, our twinges of conscience become more urgent and disturbing. To rid oneself of such irritation, the self-centered being finally decrees his god-connection null and void, perhaps seeing through it as a superstitious anachronism. But if the initial theological premises – our creation in love by God and a prescribed (but freely resistible) return to Him which is the ultimate fulfillment – are true, then the self-server is in a double bind: first, he is following a life course that is finally unfulfilling; second, he cannot learn or know this because in his pride he has denied and lost his redemptive blueprint.

The problem, Lewis writes, is that only a bad person needs to repent, but only a good person can do it. The mystery of redemption lies in a good person’s willingness to suffer and repent for iniquities other than one’s own. Again the bad – self-serving – person has no motive to suffer or repent for even his own sins. The motive for taking on the sins and burdens of the world is sheer other-regarding love: agape. The point is not that we understand the beautiful-horrible image of an innocent Christ on the cross; the point is to accept the gift, to faithfully follow the example – “faithfully” because we cannot know. It is no more reasonable to love (and suffer) this way than it was for God to give life to human beings robustly capable of not returning the favor. Yet He did and, Christians believe, we must. Again, if Christian theological premises are true, suffering is purposeful and redemptive, not a mistake or mere bad luck. Theological premises aside, those who take on the burden of their own and others’ suffering are well along the road to soulful realization – because suffer we must.


When we are in a state of longing – for what is distant, unattainable, long gone – our soul presses itself on consciousness; it is very near at hand. We are thus especially soulful when we are far from home. Being and feeling far from home is often unbearably sad, but at the core of the sadness is, paradoxically, an acute elation. Never is the meaning, the essence of home more vivid than when envisioned from great distances or spans of time. The heroes and questers of antiquity – Odysseus, Aeneas, Alexander – experienced their greatest heights and depths while far from home. And again, the central figures in the story of ancient Israel achieved their fullest realization as exiles, as strangers in a strange land. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least a numbing indifference to soulful relatedness. Absence makes the heart not only fonder, but paranormally conscious of precisely what has been lost.

The achievement of the greatest writers and artists of modernity has been to evoke the soulfulness of being far from home. Thomas Wolfe had to leave the piedmont in order to evoke it imaginatively; the essence of home is never so beckoning, so crystalline as when we realize we can’t go there again. American writers from Washington Irving to Mark Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, and Paul Theroux have had to leave America in order to find it imaginatively. Similarly Joyce in self-exile forged an eternally living Dublin, just as Nabokov evoked the sweetness and twilight grandeur of tsarist Russia after the revolution exiled him for life.

The distance from home need not be geographical. For Proust the distance was temporal; past consciousness would, after a suitable period of distillation, surface exquisitely, heartbreakingly into the artist’s knowing. Some souls seem to know no earthly home. The writer V. S. Naipaul, an East Indian born in Trinidad, then educated in Great Britain, ranges the world noting what men and women call home, noting also what he calls “the enigma” of every arrival. Emily Dickinson, who sequestered herself at home for her entire life, managed poetically to mark the distance between her daily being and an elusive better world, her real home.

…As all the Heavens were a Bell
And Being but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here --

We feel the distance from home as we catch present glimpses of prior light. A shaft of late afternoon sun flashes a crimson patch on the parlor carpet -–and you are transported in reverie to an afternoon many years ago, another parlor, another household, a history more vivid than any present reality – yet also, somehow, vanished. A scent in the air, a taste on the tongue, a phrase from an old recording – these too convey prior light.

There is the story of the esthete Marcel Proust who, toward the end of his life when he was ill and neurasthenic, would stir himself from the isolation he kept in his cork-lined chamber in Paris and ask to be driven to the Louvre. Inside the museum, looking neither to the left or right, he would proceed directly to Vermeer’s painting, A View of Delft. He would not look at the whole composition – a broad prospect of the seventeenth century town – only at a small patch of afternoon sunlight glowing rosily on a remote brick wall. It is said Proust would stare intently at this patch of canvas for about twenty minutes, then ask to be driven home. Proust needed to behold prior light.

Robert Johnson told me once that we are all born into paradise: into a state of all-being connectedness to everything and everyone. To develop, to mature, to “grow up” is to proceed out of this condition. Maturation and its consequent loss of relatedness are personally and culturally necessary. It is our lot to “grow” – but as Hillman writes, “growth is loss.” To grow up adaptively, to accommodate practical necessity is to distance ourselves from our first knowing.

Johnson describes the human life cycle as an ellipse. We begin at the paradisiacal curve of the figure, and we are projected out and away from that point with every discernment. Practical knowledge begins as the infant psyche first distinguishes itself from mother, self from world. From this psychic “detachment” follow all manner of distinctions and discernments: person from person, thing from thing, place from place, time from time, before from after, up from down, hot from cold, big from small, right from wrong, cause from effect. The more discerning we become and, with sophistication, the more analytic, the more power we are able to exercise over others and over the material world. True discernment is sound science, and a discerning person is adept at both “reading” and transforming the practical world. Science, enterprise, and political control belong finally to the shrewdest discerners.

But the very acts of discerning, ordering, analyzing, categorizing and organizing combine to fracture the paradisiacal wholeness which is our first condition. Each of us reaches a point in life, typically in early or late middle age, where we are as discerning – as worldly wise – as we are going to get. It is the time of our peak practical effectiveness, a time when we are likely to receive our highest accolades, our greatest popular recognition, our ultimate promotion. With our arrival at this stage in life, so accomplished and outwardly enviable, we enter the opposite curve of the ellipse. We are so far from paradise we come to doubt it exists or ever existed. In this condition it is easy to become jaded and impatient with optimists and idealists. At the far curve of the ellipse we come to resent, if we are not careful, the exuberance and dreams of the young, of even our own children. Entering the far curve of the ellipse, our deep interior feels, if we are honest, empty. There is some reassurance in executing familiar routines, but satisfaction even in these diminishes as the years pass; we affirm these routines, but there is a growing bitterness in the affirmation. There is the mounting psychic conviction that one’s – that everyone’s – life has not counted for much, perhaps alternating with spells of inflated insistence that one’s life has been exemplary, accompanied always by bottomless contempt for (or fear of) those who live otherwise. Entering the far curve of the ellipse, even the most wealthy, glamorous, and powerful feel barren and empty. This is the point in life in which it is seductively easy to slip into physical inertia, obesity, excessive drinking. There is at the same time the danger of desperate regressions: flight, promiscuity, simplistic creeds. Very often the arrival at the far curve of the ellipse is announced by an alarming health crisis.

The passage from paradise to doubt and emptiness is not an avoidable misfortune. But assuming, as Robert Johnson does, that the trajectory is not lineal but elliptical, there is hope. To journey soulfully on, to contend as Jacob did, even through what appears to be an endless wasteland, is to round the curve and proceed, but with expanded consciousness, back in the direction of paradise.

Not every man and woman has the courage, strength, and humility to round the curve. At the extremity, one neither sees nor feels the prior light. It is easy to picture impending death, and at the soulful level, we are indeed dying to something. The old war-horse of our persona, including our crowning achievements, perhaps our most entrenched and defining values, must go – or become integrated into a new, more inclusive context. This shedding of certitudes and orthodoxies can make us feel exposed, humiliated, and foolish. Many are unable to bear it; the loss of “what I have been” feels like the loss of everything, and desperate attempts are made to shore up the ruined fortress.

In early Nordic mysticism there is a tradition of Runes, which involves casting and arranging symbolic stones or panels to foretell the future. Perhaps the most austere Runic forecast is the one called Ice (also Standstill, That which Impedes). Ice, as it happens, is a precise description of the soul’s condition at the far curve of the ellipse:

"This is the winter of the spiritual life. You are in a situation to whose implications you are in effect blind… You are powerless; submit, surrender, be patient… This is a period of gestation that precedes rebirth… Shed, release, cleanse away the old. That will bring on the thaw… Submit and be still…"

Patient submission, willing surrender, dying to the old is the beginning of the soul’s return to paradise. On the return trajectory one passes over the defining discernments and achievements of the journey out – and the greatest of them are revealed to be insubstantial, fragmentary, perhaps inflated errors. We may find ourselves amused, perhaps fondly amused, at our driven former personas. As we return, we find ourselves giving up and shedding with more ease and less remorse. We find that what we are shedding is the merely personal. To lose ourselves is to find everything.

None of this should suggest that with a little patient forbearance, our mid-life flatness will open up into easeful serenity and that in our senior years we will glide seraphically back to the Source in a golden glow. The human record suggests pointedly otherwise. There is the prospect of Ice without end. One becomes the appalled witness to the loss first of certainty, then of vitality, then finally of health. Long before there is any intimation of a way back to paradise, we are lost, diminished, stranded. We lose a breast, a prostate, a colon. We know we could lose our grip on who and where we are even as we live. We may find ourselves babbling gibberish, suddenly unaccountably terrified, soiled in our own excrement. Like Lear, lost and forsaken on a desolate plain in the terminal Ice of his life, we may find our existence intolerable.


The passage through Ice, the slow and uncertain rounding of the far end of the ellipse, is perilous. It can be fatal. In the second half of the twentieth century western medical psychiatry has worked hard to isolate and treat what is clinically called depression. Manic depression, now called bi-polar disease, has received especially close attention. The low-energy, hopeless, flattened affect of depressives has been linked to depleted levels of brain chemical transmitters, and drugs which stimulate the production of the depleted substances are now massively prescribed. From the standpoint of practical survival, pharmacological interventions offer great promise and hope.

Philosophic psychology has long recognized a phenomenon called psycho-cerebral parallelism: that for every state of mind there is a corresponding state of brain. In other words, the writing of these words is accompanied by a brain state which can be described in highly specific electro-chemical terms. If my brain is electrically or chemically altered, so will be my state of mind – and vice-versa: as I write these words I am changing my brain. Psycho-cerebral parallelism does not, however, account for the causes of mental difficulty. While it is undeniably true that certain pathological mental conditions are apparently improved by the introduction of psychoactive medicines, the causes of those pathologies, whether depressive or delusional, are as likely to lie in the individual’s soulful misalignment with his world as they are in a genetic or disease-related deficiency. Medicine’s aim is and must be to restore the patient to social viability and health. The soul’s aim is to align itself with what is ultimately fulfilling and true.

Some nervous system disorders are undeniably congenital, others determined by trauma or virus; for these medical treatment may bring relief or cure. Just as undeniably there are troubled soulful states that are not finally treatable by medicines. Because a troubled soul slows and aggravates the body, it is easy to attribute this condition to conventional illness. But there is no pill or shot for soulful malaise. Indeed a tell-tale sign that the soul, and not just a physical system, is troubled is that the condition is chronic and mysteriously resistant to any kind of treatment. The Freudian era ushered in a new awareness of “psychosomatic” illness, but knowing one’s soul, and not a germ or wound, is causing the trouble does not of itself ease the pain.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that the present era in the west is a golden age of untreatable malaise. Tens of millions of Americans reportedly suffer from chronic fatigue, a bewildering array of pelvic/vaginal distress, anxiety, and depression – and the numbers are rising. Research initiatives are funded to find cause and cure. New miracle medicines flood the market. Diets recommend radically alkalizing the system, eliminating an entire food group, taking massive doses of a single all-healing herb. More conventional sufferers soldier on from day to day modified by Valium or Prozac. But again, when the trouble resides in the soul, no one seems to improve.

As previously discussed, a soul in Ice, at the far curve of the ellipse, is to all outward appearances clinically depressed. A person whose soul has arrived at this state is drained of energy, out of gas. Even ordinary action and resolution feel hopelessly enervating. Little or no pleasure is taken in art or music, in festivity or celebration, in food or company. This bottomed-out flatness carries with it a feeling-tone all its own. It is likened to sinking or falling into an ever-darkening abyss, to being blanketed from the rest of the world, to being helplessly and aggravatingly separate from everybody and everything. The very thought of forceful or therapeutic counter measures carries the sufferer into acute aversion and fatigue. The darker and deeper the descent, the more yawning the chasm of separation, the more guilty and shameful and unworthy one feels.

And then there is the resolution, however, unthinkable. The worst condition, as attempted suicides know, is not death but a harrowing realization that the present is undenurable. In the unendurable present the barrel of the revolver goes into the open mouth, the blade opens the vein, the last pill is gulped down. We turn the wheel, let go, jump – or not.

Or not. Hillman says we can drop through the very bottom of a depression and learn what it has to tell us. Perhaps this kind of dropping or falling through is, to risk confusing metaphors, the same thing as rounding the far curve of the soul’s elliptical journey. A therapist friend of mine opines that “falling through” a depression can be more deepening and healing than a medical intervention – if there is “support.” By support he means another attentive person or persons who believe your descent is as purposeful as it is troubling.

This same friend confided to me a depressive episode he experienced in his thirties. At the time, the outward indicators of his life and work were strong. He had married happily and started a family. He had a good job and bright prospects. He was a healthy, attractive, talented man – but then the bottom fell out. He was overcome with a dull, sickening feeling that nothing he did, nor any relationship he had mattered. He found himself profoundly unsure, doubting everything. His mother had also recently died, but he determined that his depression was not about her or losing her; his mother’s death, rather, beckoned him closer to an already widening void. He sought help from a psychotherapist, a woman, who, he feels now, said and did some wonderfully helpful things. At one point she asked him pointedly, “What exactly do you feel like doing right now? My friend answered honestly: “I feel like doing nothing. I feel like giving up.” He told the therapist he would like to go home, get into his pajamas, crawl into bed and have his wife take care of him as if he were a baby. To which the therapist asked him, “For how long? Years? A few months? Days?” My friend did not want years, or even months. It occurred to him that it was days he wanted, a few days of utter passivity and surrender. The therapist warmed to this. Days were quite possible! So why didn’t he go straight home, get into bed, and be a baby for a while.

As it happened, taking to his bed for a period of babying turned out to be beside the point. The healing or transforming effect of the therapist’s response, my friend feels, was that she helped him “lean into” the depression rather than to counter it, skirt it, endure it “with strength,” or to medicate it. This depressive felt he had permission to enter into the depression right through to the bottom, right into the crib, if necessary. With support, he was able to do this, and he has emerged, he feels, deeper and more durable and a more responsive therapist himself.

Of course not every depressed person would answer “days” to the therapist’s question. Some would ask for years or, like Hamlet, for eternity. They are anxious hostages in an unendurable present. The first seductive notion of oblivion begins to surface, then the formation of a plan, a highly specific plan. The specter of self-injury or suicide is never benign or frivolous. Robert Johnson believes that suicidal thoughts and drives have the potential for important psychic transformation; something needs to die all right, but not one’s whole being. With courage and support, one might “lean into” even self-destructive fantasies to learn what urgent soulful messages they want to impart. Jung himself wrote about a depressive, phobic episode he experienced in his late thirties. He found himself depressed, anxious, suddenly afraid to travel, even to go outdoors. He holed up inside. Suicidal ideas surfaced. He bought a revolver, loaded it, handled it, kept it close at hand. He made every effort to enter the new, unsettling condition in which he found himself. He leaned, he listened in – inviting even the deadliest impulses to come to consciousness. They were welcome, but they did not come, and Jung resurfaced into the light.

The soul seeks not equilibrium and ease but rather communion with what is ultimate. The soul does not always seek to feel good; it seeks to feel everything. It is practically inconvenient and often wildly inappropriate to feel everything – especially the extremities of feeling, agonies and ecstasies. Our greatest artists have attempted to expose a world in which the totality of soulful experience – from the diabolical to the divine – is at hand. Homer’s Odysseus has himself lashed to the mast so that he can hear and feel the Sirens’ seductive and deadly song. The whole soulful truth may involve periodic excursions into the very maw of hell. Two of the most expansive figures in Greek mythology. Dionysus and Orpheus, undertook journeys deep into hell as did the legendary Aeneas and, later, Dante’s narrative persona in the Divine Comedy. Two master painters of the northern renaissance, Hieronymus Bosch and Peter Brueghel, depicted hells of breathtaking vividness. Despite the painterly conventions of the period and the strangeness and perversity of the tortures and abominations portrayed, any child beholding such a canvas immediately recognizes that it is hell. Perhaps a signature of every great artist is the ability, when necessary, to impart an intimation of hell.

The soul does indeed know and recognize hell, but it also knows that hell is not and must not be universal. Hell on earth is an outrage, never endurable, always wrong. No matter how many tellings and recountings and dramatizations it endures, the soul cannot bear the Holocaust or any other manifest hell on earth. The Holocaust was hell on earth, hell made visible.


Hillman and a growing number of thoughtful Jungians are voicing a concern over the less visible or less clearly perceived hells mankind may be unwittingly creating. These writers ask whether the deprivation of natural and created beauty could be the cause of widespread soulful malaise, including depression. Romantic naturalists from Wordsworth to John Muir have celebrated the soulful power and majesty of natural beauty. Aristotle believed the alpine and maritime prospects over which romantics rhapsodize share an essential esthetic property: limitless enormity. The soul rises to the great and the vast: mountains and mountaintops, sweeping expanses of ethereal blue or star-bejeweled sky, oceans, deserts, endless prairies and plains. But the soul recognizes more than mere magnitude in natural beauty. There is the glass-clear pool in the glade, the darkening copse silhouetted against the twilit horizon at day’s end, the low murmur of a brook meandering among ferns and mossy rocks, the chiseled perfection of the face of every cat, the red-winged blackbird’s slivered gash, the transporting orange of the oriole, scarlet of the tanager, blue of the bluebird, the miraculous iridescence and pastels of parakeet and parrot, or saffron scaled fish against corral, a conch in a swirling tide pool, the craft of a nest, a bank of daffodils, the unearthly visage of an owl. Yes. But if the heart flies up and the soul unfurls to natural and crafted beauty, surely the absence or, worse, the ruination of that beauty will cause wounded contraction. Depression may well be more an esthetic problem than a neurological one.

Esthetic deprivation may also help explain depressive conditions that have no apparent domestic or situational cause. I can recall vividly driving in a car with my grandparents while on a summer vacation in northern Michigan. It was sunset, and I was alone in the backseat of the Ford, taking in the passing prospect with heightened feeling. I was eight years old. For a city boy, the surroundings were spellbinding: great outcroppings of granite bluff topped with forests of thick pine, then a break between rock faces and the appearance of still, glassy lakes made smoky and rosy by the declining sun. Stretches of meadow, too, and cultivated fields, and boundary hedgerows felt graceful and congruent. But then we would round a bend and enter settled territory and everything, it seemed to me, was ruined. The corrugated metals used to roof the farm houses and barns, the garish painted billboards, the rusted and skeletal tractors in the fields, the junked cars, phone and power lines slung blackly across the horizon – this was a mistake! I was eight years old, barely awake, unschooled and certainly unrefined, but I knew something was wrong. Why were the made things so awful? Why couldn’t they be made to fit? Each new harshness, each insult to treeline and sky felt like a clout to the head. It was sickening, it hurt, and nobody had taught me to feel that way.

Ugliness insults the soul. It was once believed that certain natural places – springs, streambeds, glades, forests – were so numinous in feeling that they continued to emanate their essence after they were razed, built and paved over. If an instance of despoliation, of ugliness, hurts the soul, pervasive ugliness overwhelms it and sends it into a kind of beaten grief. Environmental ugliness and ruin are depressive. Prozac and lithium may somewhat distance and detach the sufferer from the source, but drugs cannot cure it. For every practical reason, we have allowed environmental form to follow the soulless penchant for speed, portability, uniformity, and disposability – and in consequence have made sprawling, hideous messes. For mile after mile, mall after mall, the soul gasps for a beauty it can bear. Just as the soul seeks prior light, it seeks earth and grass underfoot, never pavement. It is long past time to ask if our chronic and elusive symptoms, if our depressions, are not the result of despoiling the soul’s natural home. What if greater forces than abusive parents, bad marriages, unemployment or faulty neurological wiring are at work in our depressions and anxieties? What if the Styrofoam cup, vinyl desk top, fluorescent light, and fiberboard ceiling panel are making us sick? Where the devastation is so massive and pervasive it feels irreversible, accrued horribly over generations, where the very elements – water, air, earth – seem fouled past cleansing, the soul folds its head under its wing and wants to die.

It is time, Hillman suggests, to consider the aesthetic basis of mental illness and its accompanying physical unease:
"Suppose we are being harassed, as much by the form of things as by their material, where form means their aesthetic quality…

Plotinus makes this clear (On Beauty 1.6.2): 'The things in this world are beautiful by participating in form… a thing is ugly when it is not mastered by some shape.' You and I are in psychologically bad shape because our physical world is bent out of shape. And, Plotinus says in the same passage, “this is because when the soul meets the ugly it shrinks within itself, denies the thing, turns away from it, out of tune, resenting it.” Plotinus here describes the clinical condition of the psyche turning itself in for therapy: out of tune, withdrawn, resentful. The ugly makes us neurotic."
(H&V. 125)


Trouble, pain, isolation, doubt without end – this too is the soul speaking. If we want to know exactly what it is saying, we must listen, surrender, even descend. The soul is our instrument for registering our fit in the ultimate scheme of things. Its vocabulary is as variegated and nuanced as feeling itself. The soul can only tell and feel truthfully. When one is out of alignment with or simply starved for beauty and harmony, the truth positively hurts. Yet, if the soul is capable of taking the measure of our periodic misalignment in the world, and if we have the courage to let ourselves feel it, we will not fail to register the renewing realignment when it comes. There will be a first glimmer of prior light, then the familiar brightening of desire as grace bears us homeward.