January 26, 2014

Spirit of the Depth: Carl Jung and Poetry

As a poet, I've sometimes felt a sense of being joined in my work by a spirit or a muse. Of course, flow experience--the intense, creative focus when one is not conscious of time or events outside the door--feels spiritual.  At times, it's been a terrific struggle.  In its pursuit, I've gone through seismic changes.  In retrospect, it's been soul-making. Occasionally, I've had work that felt inspired, meaning in spiritus. So I ask what is the connection between spirituality and making art?

The poet Federico Garcia Lorca named and invoked the Duende, and the Duende created an almost atmospheric change. Neither muse nor angel, it was not a spirit (according to Lorca) as much as a struggle. The Duende did not bring gifts or even a livelihood.  It lent brilliance at the same time that it caused anguish.  He said it was "communication with God through the five senses." Lorca also explained:
...the duende wounds, and in trying to heal that wound that never heals, lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of a man’s work....
Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline. We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand, that it shatters styles and makes Goya, master of the greys, silvers and pinks of the finest English art, paint with his knees and fists in terrible bitumen blacks....
Edward Hirsch has written much about Lorca's concept of the Duende, and he offered the example of the singer Billie Holiday. The spirit seemed to rise from under the feet, in darkness, and quickens in proximity to death. It turned out that Carl Jung had his own spirit that he called the "Spirit of the Depth." Jung's spirit also represented an extreme psychic struggle.

According to Gerhard Hauptmann, "Poetry evokes out of words the resonance of the primordial word." This quote appears in Carl Jung's essay about psychoanalysis and poetry.  Carl Jung has indelibly marked the understanding of the human psyche and art with his concepts of dream work, the collective unconscious, and archetypes, and he was heavily influenced by Gnosticism.

In an introduction to Gnosticism, Stephan Hoeller explains: "[it] is the teaching based on Gnosis, the knowledge of transcendence arrived at by way of interior, intuitive means." Gnosticism, instead of blaming man, attributes suffering of people in the world to a flawed design.
The ultimate, true God, "Unknown Father," did not and does not create the world, but emanates in it.  The flaw was caused by a lesser deity, "Demiurgos,"  who deluded himself that he was the Ultimate God and created a world that was flawed in the same way that he was. Duality, this mix of the "in-dwelling divine spark" and the flaw, is reflected in human nature. Sin is a consequence of humans' lack of knowledge, and salvation occurs when it is obtained.  Hoeller writes:  
Theology has been called an intellectual wrapping around the spiritual kernel of a religion. If this is true, then it is also true that most religions are being strangled and stifled by their wrappings. Gnosticism does not run this danger, because its world view is stated in myth rather than in theology. Myths, including the Gnostic myths, may be interpreted in diverse ways. Transcendence, numinosity, as well as psychological archetypes along with other elements, play a role in such interpretation. Still, such mythic statements tell of profound truths that will not be denied.
Carl Jung has become the source of much public discourse about archetypes and the larger patterns that exist in the human and collective psyche, and through him, the influence of Gnosticism. In his essay, he examines the fact that many works of art seem to arrive through the art (or poetry through poets) who do not believe they control the material or how it manifests. Although it is 'good form' to summarize instead of using long portions of the text, I prefer to contemplate Jung's direct words instead of offering my paraphrase. His insight into this peculiar phenomenon is worth reading:
Analysis of artists consistently shows not only the strength of the creative impulse arising from the unconscious, but also its capricious and willfull character. The biographies of great artists make abundantly clear that the creative urge is often so imperious that it battens on their humanity and yokes everything to the service of the work, even at the cost of health and ordinary human happiness. The unborn work in the psyche of the artist is a force of nature that achieves its end either with tyrannical might or with the subtle cunning of nature herself, quite regardless of the personal fate of the man who is its vehicle. The creative urge lives and grows in him like a tree in the earth from which it draws its nourishment....
The primordial image, or archetype, is a figure be it a daemen, a human being, or a process - that constantly recurs in the course of history and appears wherever creative fantasy is freely expressed. Essentially, therefore, it is a mythological figure....
The description that Jung presents here seems consistent with Lorca's duende.  The creation of excellent artistic work may very well demand that the poet or artist walk to the very edge. Too many artists have succumbed to suicide, and I don't doubt they've suffered an emotional toll of art-making.  Jung's words seem to offer reassurance:
The moment when this mythological situation reappears is always characterized by a peculiar emotional intensity; it is as though chords in us were struck that had never resounded before, or as though forces whose existence we never suspected were unloosed....So it is not surprising that when an archetypal situation occurs we suddenly feel an extraordinary sense of release, as though transported, or caught up by an overwhelming power. At such moments we are no longer individual, but the race; the voice of all mankind resounds in us. The individual man cannot use his powers to the full unless he is aided by one of those collective representations we call ideals, which releases all the hidden forces of instinct that are inaccessible to his conscious will. The most effective ideals are always fairly obvious variants of an archetype, as is evident from the fact that they lend themselves to allegory.
The impact of an archetype, whether it takes the form of immediate experience or is expressed through the spoken word, stirs us because it summons up a voice that is stronger than our own. Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthralls and overpowers, while at the same time he lifts the idea he is seeking to express out of the occasional and the transitory into the realm of the ever-enduring. He transmutes our personal destiny into the destiny of mankind, and evokes in us all those beneficent forces that ever and anon have enabled humanity to find a refuge from every peril and to outlive the longest night.
The work that succeeds, the excellent art that is created, offers healing.  Original art, in the words of Walter Benjamin, is like a living thing and it has it own aura. Good poetry, as Paul Valery has said, is designed to create new meanings each time that it is read.  Jung continues:

That is the secret of great art, and of its effect upon us. The creative process, so far as we are able to follow it at all, consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image, and in elaborating and shaping this image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present, and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life. Therein lies the social significance of art: it is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking. The unsatisfied yearning of the artist reaches back to the primordial image in the unconscious which is best fitted to compensate the inadequacy and one-sidedness of the present. The artist seizes on this image, and in raising it from deepest unconsciousness he brings it into relation with conscious values, thereby transforming it until it can be accepted by the minds of his contemporaries according to their powers.
Jung's explanation gives insight into the sense of mysticism and art or poetry. It turns out that Jung also was seized by his own dreamscape and subconscious, and he was writing and creating art. He believed that certain images and symbols came to him from outside of himself. The images had deep meaning for him. His essay about psychoanalysis and poetry explains how art can be used to trace the "spirit of the times."   But in the Libre Novus / Red Book, (Libre Novus is Latin, translated literally as New Book), he juxtaposed this with the phrase "spirit of the depth." This book has had mixed reviews; some find it bizarre, mystifying, and perhaps the result of a psychological breakdown or mental illness, but some find it a fascinating record of his own dreams, images, and artistic explorations.

His writings reflect the struggle of an artist.  Perhaps art best signifies the "transcendence achieved through interior, intuitive means" described by Hoeller in his introduction to gnosticism. Jung's diary testifies to his own struggle with the spirit of the times (as the flawed world), and the spirit of the depth (as the Unknowable One, or immanence). His words are easily mapped to the beliefs of Gnostics.

The path of knowledge is individual, the discernment of truth difficult, an intensely personal experience. In Libre Novus (The Red Book) he acknowledged that although he initially attempted to live as the scientist, he succumbed to artistic exploration. The book, with its beautiful plates of his drawings and paintings give the reader information about Jung as the artist. He wrote:
My path is not your path therefore I / cannot teach you. The way is within us, but not in Gods, nor in teachings, nor in laws. Within us is the way, the truth, and the life. Woe betide those who live by way of examples! Life is not with them. If you live according to an example, you thus live the life of that example, but who should live your own life if not yourself? So live yourselves....
May each go his own way. I will be no savior, no lawgiver, no master teacher unto you. You are no longer little children. Giving laws, wanting improvements, making things easier, has all become wrong and evil. May each one seek out his own way. The way leads to mutual love in community. Men will come to see and feel the similarity and commonality of their ways. Laws and teachings held in common compel people to solitude, so that they may escape the pressure of undesirable contact, but solitude makes people hostile and venomous. Therefore give people dignity and let each of them stand apart, so that each may find his own fellowship and love it. Power stands against power, contempt against contempt, love against love. Give humanity dignity, and trust that life will find the better way. The one eye of the Godhead is blind, the one.ear of the Godhead is deaf, the order of its being is crossed by chaos. So be patient with the crippled-ness of the world and do not overvalue its consummate beauty. (Pages 229-331)
These words especially speak to artists and writers in the midst of creative work. Each artist must stand apart in order to listen deeply to their own work. It's difficult work, akin to the most arduous labors, wrestling with the inadequacies of language, the limitations of the self, the interruptions, the demands outside the art, and the demands of the artistic project itself.  The Demiurgos who created the world is parallel to the artist's work.  It has a divine spark, and the artwork reveals the flaw of the maker.  Czeslaw Milosz, in his "Ars Poetica" writes:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
What I'm saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.  
People who go through difficult times, illness, anguish, self-doubt, separation, loss call these experiences "soul-making."  The best outcome of the pain perhaps is to create a greater capacity for empathy.  I don't agree with Milosz about writing poems rarely or reluctantly. Actually, for me writing poems feels necessary. I can't imagine life otherwise.  It's simply what I do.  But his words do shed light on the challenges ahead for any person who is intensely engaged with creative work because the Spirit of the Depth or the Duende, as Lorca said, comes "announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things."

Work Cited

Jung, C.J.  Liber Novus: The Red Book. Internet Archive. Web.  Retrieved 26 January 2014. https://archive.org/details/LiberNovus-TheRedBookjung

Jung, C.J. "On the Relation of Psychoanalytic Psychology to Poetry." The Spirit of Man, Art and Literature. Princeton University Press. Fourth Edition 1978. Web. Retrieved 26 January 2014. http://studiocleo.com/librarie/jung/essay.html

Hoeller, Stephan A. "The Gnostic Worldview: A Brief Summary of Gnosticism."  The Gnosis Archive.  Web. Retrieved 26 January 2014.   http://gnosis.org/gnintro.htm

Lorca, Federico Garcia. "Theory and Play of the Duende."  Translated by A.S. Kline.  Poetry in Translation.  Web. Retrieved 26 January 2014.  http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Spanish/LorcaDuende.htm

Milosz, Czeslaw. "Ars Poetica?" PoemHunter. Web 26 January 2014.  http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/ars-poetica/

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