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.