Saturday, July 16, 2011

Concerning The Cycle of Life

Publication Date 8/1/2011

by Erel Shalit
from the forthcoming The Cycle of Life

The Grimm Brothers tell the story of how God decided about the duration of life, and the dire consequences of man’s demands:
When God created the world and was about to determine the duration of life for all the creatures, the donkey came and asked, “Lord, how long am I to live?” 
“Thirty years,” replied God. “Does that content you?” 
“Ah! Lord,” answered the ass, “that is a long time. Think of my painful existence! To carry heavy burdens from morning until night, to drag bags of corn to the mill so that others might eat bread, only to be cheered along and refreshed with nothing but kicks and blows! Spare me a portion of this long time.” 
So God had mercy and gave him eighteen years. The donkey went away satisfied, and the dog made his appearance. 
“How long would you want to live?” said God to him; “thirty years are too many for the donkey, but you will be satisfied with that long.” 
“Lord,” answered the dog, “is that thy will? Just think how I shall have to run. My feet will never hold out so long. And what can I do but growl and run from one corner to another after I have lost my voice for barking and my teeth for biting?” 
God saw that he was right, and settled for twelve years. 
Then came the monkey. “You will certainly like to live thirty years,” said the Lord to him; “you need not work like the donkey and the dog, and will always enjoy yourself.” 
“Ah! Lord,” he answered, “it may seem as if that were the case, but it is quite different. When it rains porridge, I have no spoon. I am always to play merry tricks and make faces for people to laugh, but when they give me an apple and I bite into it, why, it is sour! How often is sorrow hidden behind a joke. I shall never be able to hold out with all that for thirty years!” 
God had mercy and gave him ten years. 
At last man appeared, joyous, healthy, and vigorous, and begged God to determine the duration of his life. 
“Thirty years you shall live,” spoke the Lord. “Is that enough for you?” 
“What a short time!” cried man, “when I have built my house and my fire burns on my own hearth; when I have planted trees that blossom and bear fruit, and am just beginning to enjoy my life, then I am to die! Oh, Lord, lengthen my time.” 
“I will add to it the ass’s eighteen years,” said God. 
“That is not enough,” replied man. 
“You shall also have the dog’s twelve years.” 
“Still too little!”
“Well, then,” said God, “I will give you the monkey’s ten years as well, but you shall have no more.” 
Man went away, but was not satisfied. 
Thus man lives for seventy years. The first thirty are his human years, which are soon gone; that is when he is healthy and happy; works with pleasure, and is glad of his life. Then follow the donkey’s eighteen years, when one burden after another is laid on him; he carries the corn that feeds others, and kicks and blows are the reward of his faithful services. Then come the dog’s twelve years, when he lies in the corner growling, and has no longer any teeth with which to bite. And when this time is past, the monkey’s ten years bring man to the end. Now man is weak headed and foolish, does silly things and becomes the laughingstock for children. (1)
This grim(m) story tells a fundamental, though not absolute truth of life. It provides a healthy and bittersweet compensation for our common belief in and virtual worship of seemingly eternal, or at least life-long youth, with the concomitant repression of life’s darker sides and the denial of death. In fact, Ernest Becker claimed that man’s hope and belief is that the things created in society shall be “of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay.” That is, Becker considers the very basis of civilization to be a defense against human mortality. (2)

When cosmetics and plastic surgery mold a stiff and unyielding mask of youth, or rather of fictitious youthful appearance, old age cannot wear its true face of wisdom. By flattening out the valleys of our wrinkles, we erase the imprints of our character. Fixation in a narcissistic condition of an outworn mask silences the inner voice of meaning in our life.

Jung defines life as the “story of the self-realization of the unconscious. Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions to experience itself as a whole.”(3) The purpose of this book is to describe some of the principal archetypal images at play as we navigate our journey through the cycle of life. In each stage of life, there is an image, or rather a cluster of psychological themes that pertain to that particular period, such as the divine child and the orphan child.

Usually, these themes and images do not correspond to actual events or traumata, but reflect internal, archetypal experiences. The feelings related to being an orphan are universal, and a vital facet of growing out of certain states of childhood; sometimes, however, the archetypal image of the orphan may devastatingly strike a child by the traumatic loss of a parent. Traumatic experiences often cause fixation; the archetypal image becomes frozen in the psyche of the traumatized person, rather than serving as a transitory psychic constellation, eventually integrating into the fullness of the personality.

Furthermore, sometimes we are struck by the disparity between a predominant archetypal image and the prevailing developmental stage, as for instance like when we see a senex-child, that is, a child who seems to speak the old person’s tongue, rather than to be dwelling in the world of childhood play. Or, for example, a mother of four teenage children, all of whom thought of her as a ‘child-mother,’ immature and childish. Even when they were small, they felt that she wanted them to be parental children taking care of her.

The archetypal idea of a journey through life is outlined in Chapter I, in which Jung’s theory of the stages of life, as well as other perspectives, will be reviewed.

A focus on the river of life as an image of the journey will help illustrate the process of transformation from predetermined fate to individual destiny. Hermes, god of thieves and merchants, souls and roads, will guide us toward the Hermetic aspect of life’s journey, infusing the experience of life with meaning, when graced with those soulful gifts that alter life’s course.

The first actual stage we encounter on the journey is unavoidably The Child, whom we tenderly receive in chapter II. Archetypally, childhood is the idea and the image of the child rather than the concrete experience. The divine child, such as the child-god Eros, dwells in the vicinity of the gods, while ego-reality still seems far away, in a future that shall all too soon whirl up at the horizon. The ego germ dwells as but a prospective seed in the waters of the self. However, even at the archetypal level childhood is not pure splendor; behind existence in paradisiacal divinity lies the deep, dark and threatening abyss of chaos, of tohu-va-vohu, as it is called in the Bible.(4) Moreover, after reclining on the blissful couch of paradisiacal innocence, the necessary feelings of abandonment creep up upon us, as the fleeting moments of divine existence escape us, finding ourselves in the misery of life’s orphanage.

In this chapter, as in those that follow, dreams and tales will illustrate the archetypal images of life’s stages, considering as well the pathology of the cycle of life, and the meaning that abides in it.

The Puer and the Puella, the young man and the maiden, rush into the pages of the book in chapter III. They hold the fire and the spirit of the gods, trying like Prometheus to bring it to the use of man—man, sometimes being the threatened father who tries to wrestle the fire out of his son’s hand, extinguishing the flame and strangling the spirit, and sometimes in the image of the protective mother, carefully harnessing it by keeping the hearth’s fire burning.

As hero, the young person brings the fire of the self to the use and benefit of the ego, and exposes in the light of consciousness that which lingers in the dark. The task of the puer is to bring the Promethean fire and the spirit to combine with earth. However, the young ones are always in danger of tripping off into unfocused associations, or falling recklessly to the ground, onto the harsh earth, drunk by the wine, burned by passion or overtaken by the spirit.

In chapter IV, we shall stand on the firm ground of The Adult. The King in the fairytales is the ruler on earth, the dominant principle of collective consciousness, powerful in a man-made world. While ours is a world of limits and limitations, borders and boundaries, kings tend to get inflated with their hubris, disregarding the fact of their supposed appointment by divine decree. Kings often forget that they merely represent the unfolding of an archetypal image in the human realm. In the fairy tales of our psyche, the king is the ruler of ego and consciousness, of the self’s constellation in the ego, in the adult world of science, cities and organizations. The ego’s rule on earth may be a mirror image of the self, the terrestrial replication of the celestial city, and of nature’s order and organization, as we find it in a multitude of wonders, e.g. the bee-hive or the planets’ course in the universe. However, inflation is often the insignia of royal rule, whereby the spirit is lost, the earth dries up, and hunger and starvation transpire, since the softness and transparency of the soul are not nourished by material wealth. When inflation possesses power over the king, the feminine soul leaves his fairy tale, escaping like a grasshopper to avoid being squeezed between the pages, as the angry king slams shut the annals of his royal book. But alas the king himself dies—the ink of his pen has dried, the remainder of his page in history remains unwritten. When the waters of childhood are dry, and the fiery spirit of youth is obsolete, the collective consciousness of norms and rules often becomes repressive and oppressive.

In chapter V. i, we shall look for, and hopefully catch sight of the Senex, the old man or woman (5), who moves toward corporal invisibility, who leaves ego behind to melt into that greater Self, the world soul, that we can only intuit in the wind. He or she stands at the ultimate crossroads of corporal dis-integration and meaninglessness on the one hand, and a sense of humble participation in the unfolding of a greater scheme that relies on the way man shapes his consciousness and carries his destiny, on the other.

In chapter V. ii, we pay homage to Sophocles and his masterful play Oedipus at Colonus. We shall ponder upon the perhaps never fully resolved or resolvable conflict between meaninglessness, stagnation and disintegration versus a sense of purpose, meaning and transcendent connection.

We need to balance all these ages of individual development along the life cycle. The proportions change, however, and for instance a too earth-bound young person may set too severe limitations on his spirit, too soon. In the concluding chapter V. iii, we shall see how the puzzle may come together in a meaningful way, as the ego turns toward the Self.

As concerns psychology, we find that Freudian psychology is based primarily on the child archetype, as unfolding in childhood, in spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that Freud himself was quite a neurotic adult. The Jungian approach is more of a senex-psychology, in the sense that central importance is placed on the quest for meaning. While Jung remained quite a playful child throughout his entire life, building towers and castles at the shores of the lake, he plunged into his introverted mind in search for meaning.

In so far as there is a nucleus of archetypal images at the center of each stage of life, the archetypal essence of each age is present in us all, throughout life, even if in various proportions and changing manifestations.

Jung spoke about the need for a modern myth based not only on ego-consciousness but individuation, which we may define as a vital, dynamic and meaningful relationship between ego and self (or Self)(6), an ever-changing relationship through life, which we shall explore as it unfolds through the seasons of our life. As Thomas Mann says, “Myth is the foundation of life; it is the timeless schema, the pious formula into which life flows when it reproduces its traits out of the unconscious.”(7)

1 Grimm Brothers, The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, pp. 716-718.
2 Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, p. 5.
3 Carl Gustav Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 3.
4 The term ‘tohu-va-vohu’ can be understood as ‘waste and wild, wonder and bewilderment.’
5 While senex principally is the old, not necessarily wise man, it is here applied regardless of gender, just as senior, seniority and senility pertain to and affect men as well as women.
6 Jung did not capitalize the Self as archetype. It is, however, useful to capitalize the Self as archetype of wholeness and center, in distinction from the self as representation in the ego.
7 Thomas Mann, ‘Freud and the Future,’ Daedalus, p. 374.
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