The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon
Presentations: Charles Knott
Abaissement on the Blacktop: A Heroic Memory
James Hillman, archetypal psychologist with a broad literary education and a quick wit, says the fictional model of the unconscious mind is picaresque―one episode after another after another, like the coyote chasing the road-runner. This picaresque movement in the unconscious often leads me to ask, “What, in God’s name, is next?”
A few years ago I had come to the end of a long sequence of events lasting around 30 years, and I might have been ready to retire, except I was feeling empty and without purpose, and so I actually feared retirement. It was as if I had finally climbed out of an endless labyrinth and, instead of feeling triumphant, was suddenly faced with no challenge, no plan, no future―and high anxiety. I thought about the frame of mind of Ishmael at the opening of Moby Dick. He responded to his sense of purposelessness by signing on for a voyage aboard a whaler. There he met the single-minded Captain-from-hell named Ahab, and he also became close friends with a seven-foot-tall cannibal named Queequeeg. Not only did the voyage break Ishmael out of his despondency, it almost cost him his life. I wondered what, in my world, would equate to a whaling ship, and if I would have the courage to sign on if I found it.
There is also a beautifully apt nautical term that describes purposelessness when it happens collectively to the crew of a ship, usually as they are passing through the South seas: "the doldrums," a time when the wind dies down, the sails fall, the ship becomes dead in the water, and there is no work for the crew. Sea captains know this means danger because the safety of the ship depends on the disciplined, routinized hard work of the sailors. They know that the doldrums create idle minds, and, to avoid this at all costs, they put the crew to doing all kinds of work, just for the sake of working. The men complain, but the work prevents the idleness of mind that can lead, proverbially, into the Devil's workshop of mischievousness. Mischief on board ship can quickly become life-threatening to captain and crew alike.
In the Collected Works of my mentor, depth psychologist C.G. Jung, I found a precise expression for my condition: abaissement du niveau mental. This refers to a reduction of conscious purpose, a mental and emotional condition experienced as “loss of soul,” another way of describing an almost catatonic depression. The English word “abasement” is related, referring to a “low or downcast state.” When the energy that fuels the ego's purpose is abandoned due to ego inactivity, that energy then falls into the unconscious mind, causing forces there to become activated. I also remembered hearing Joseph Campbell say, “For every psychological impulse, there is a mythological counterpart.” What moment in what myth could adequately describe my collapsed sense of purpose? The Trojan War came to mind.
This dangerous psychological stagnation is imagized when Agamemnon pulls together a number of armies and takes command of them so he can rescue Helen. The Trojan prince Paris, with the help of the goddess Aphrodite, has abducted Helen from the house of Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother. This abduction is a causus belli: the Greek generals from each of the Greek Isles have a treaty guaranteeing that if one of their number goes to war, all of them will combine their armies and go to war as his allies. On the very day Agamemnon finally unites a contentious group of armies and moves that group forward to board the ships that will take them to Troy, the wind fails. The condition of Agamemnon and his men rapidly deteriorates as they wait day after day, with their armor and weapons at the ready, for an effective force to get them moving. On reflection, I could see that I was stuck just as they were stuck. As a therapist, I knew that when the psyche becomes stuck, the task is to get it unstuck and moving again.
Agamemnon wants so badly to come out of this stalemate that he sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to placate the gods; then the winds come, and the great purpose of the Trojan War unfolds. Of course, the sacrifice of the daughter does not set well with Agamemnon’s wife, who, with her lover's help, murders him in his bathtub when he returns from the War. But never mind that. Now the job is to get moving at any cost! We can pay later.
Making a decision to accept whatever the unconscious produces and pledging to act on it equates to what Alan Watts referred to as "hitting the surprise button": taking one's hands off the metaphoric steering wheel of one’s life and daring to let the unconscious take over. This can bring lively times―maybe the best, maybe the worst, or maybe something in-between the best and the worst―but lively. No more doldrums!
Roughly speaking, the doldrums was my state of mind when I finished up 30 years of striving and found myself with nothing to do, nowhere to go, and nothing to look forward to. I had that stultifying feeling that any future intended for me had come and gone. My effective life might be over. What would be next? Nothing? I had no idea.
So, regressing from late middle age to age 18, I went home to my parents and sat on the front porch of their country manse, idly reading the want ads as I had done when I sought out my first job the summer before starting college. This was a depressing activity: I spent hours reading over descriptions of jobs that I would certainly be incompetent to hold―things like systems analyst or account executive.
Each inappropriate job description I read pounded my head into further visions of my own inadequacy, and I began reproaching myself for not having lived a life of common sense; I imagined that such a life would have trained me to take one of these jobs and live happily and securely forever after. Rather than stopping this self-negating exercise, this self-abasement, I pushed on to see just how far into a vision of self-worthlessness I could go. I knew the energy would eventually turn, and I hoped that, when it did turn, I would be rescued by a vision of a new life direction. I knew also that the vision might be quite shocking and that, if I were desperate enough to use this method, I should commit in advance to acting upon what I was given, no matter what it might be. To get the image and not act on it would offend the gods of the unconscious who had sent the image to me. So―what would it be? Bungee jumping? Operating a cash register at a 7/11? Bodybuilding? Rosacrusianism? Gardening? Let the unconscious lead! I said. I will go with it. I will do anything to get out of the doldrums. GIVE ME A BLOODY WHALING SHIP WITH A PSYCHOTIC CAPTAIN!
As I read the classifieds, my eye was drawn back, time and again, to a job description that caused me to think, Well, I could do this, if I wanted to. The job description was truck driver. Had I not driven trucks in the Army? There was a catch, however. These jobs did not require a Ph.D., which I had, but they did require either a class A or a class B license. I didn’t know what that was, but I knew I didn’t have one. Nevertheless, the spark had caught in the unconscious, and day after day it nagged me with a challenge that grew bolder and more insistent. Why was I hesitating? Was I afraid? Would I go back on my word? IT wanted to know. Then the unconscious began to goad me with voices like spears that grew sharper by the day. You want action, don’t you? So what’s it going to be? More moping? Or, sometimes I would hear, You need a class A license, my friend, so what are you going to do about it? Come on, Charles―you see how much in demand truck drivers are; let’s get a class A license and then never again have to worry about being unemployed and useless. Charles, are you scared of them big rigs? You asked for a whaling ship. A tractor-trailer is as close as you’re gonna get to a whaling ship! Would you rather sit around and continue to pretend you want a job while your Mama feeds you day after day?
After being taunted halfway to the point of madness, I actually went to the phone and called a truck driving school on Moreland Avenue in Atlanta and arranged for an appointment. Truck driving seemed like an outrageous career move, but then I reflected on the alchemical saying, “the opposite is always good.” This move would definitely be an opposite to the academic work life I had been living.
Arriving for my appointment at truck-driving college, I found myself entering a modest little shack of a building beside a blacktop where an ancient tractor-trailer was parked. Fighting back feelings of panic, I went inside and asked to see the driving instructor I had talked to on the phone. After looking over my resume, the instructor, with an ironic, amused twinkle in his eye, said my education was a bit top heavy for truck driving; I noticed, however, that he seemed glad enough to accept my tuition money, and with that, I became a part of the student body. I had signed on; I was in. I was told that the next training cycle started the following morning.
Soon I was sitting behind the wheel of a huge tractor-trailer truck and learning, day after day, how to change the gears without grinding them, how to back up to a loading dock, and even how to parallel park. Our training took place on the large blacktop beside the school. I had ten cohorts of various ages, racial compositions and employment backgrounds. We had no rich people among us, and no geniuses.
For me, the first problem was the extremely frustrating challenge of learning how to over-ride my instincts: when backing the rig, one must turn the steering wheel in the direction that is the opposite when backing a car. I was told that the better I was at backing a car, the harder it would be for me to back a tractor trailer; it happens that I was real good at backing a car. To get a feeling of what it’s like to back a large trailer, do this experiment: draw a complicated line on a piece of paper. Then, keeping the paper in place, try to re-trace that line looking at it only in a mirror.
My perceptual world had to change so that I no longer needed to use my conscious mind to plot out each movement of the steering wheel necessary to control the movement of the truck. I had to learn to turn the wheel spontaneously in the correct way. But this knowledge did not come easily or quickly, and I was beginning to believe it might never come at all.
We ten students took turns working behind the steering wheel of one truck. This was in the month of August, and the Atlanta sun reflected such heat off our blacktop that we were all in danger of heat stroke. I carried a gallon jug of water to school with me. Periodically, I would take off my water-soaked hat and pour water directly onto my head. As I did this, I meditated on bathing in the River Lethe, the ancient Greek “river of forgetfulness.” I wanted to forget everything I knew and focus on backing a 56-foot trailer. It was plenty challenging, and I was a bit fragile. The task of backing a truck even invaded my dreams: a small electric fan on my bedroom floor entered my sleep as the sound of the diesel engine of a truck that would not go where I wanted it to go.
I was learning my new skill, but I was learning slowly, and I was not confident. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to drop out of this training program, forfeit my tuition money, and go back to my parents’ front porch. The only consolation was that all the other students were also making very slow progress—several of them were also thinking of dropping out. One of our number actually had to quit because the instructor considered his driving dangerous.
Contemplating the end of an experience sometimes brings about change. Hermann Hesse has Siddhartha make his life-changing decision only after thinking seriously about drowning himself in the River Ganges. At that moment Siddhartha learns to live on bananas and to be content to operate a ferry boat on the Ganges instead of drowning in it. Similarly, I was having a hard time facing the future, and I was on the verge of giving up. Is this the moment when something will change? I wondered.
One day, after we had been working hard on mastering various maneuvers, it was again my turn to drive. I put down my water jug and manfully jumped onto the high running board, grabbed the help handle, and boosted myself into the truck. At this point, the instructor came out of the building and yelled, "All right! Everybody into the classroom! Knott―park that truck in the corner over there and get inside!"
I looked at the corner he was pointing to and saw that it was close to a utility pole. My heart sank, and my fears came up. I can’t back this truck over there! What if I hit that utility pole and break it? Will live wires fall onto the truck and electrocute me? If I live, the least I will suffer will be having to pay the city for the pole. A friend of mind once had a wreck and ended up paying the city $1500 to replace a damaged utility pole, and that pole was just like this one! And the class is waiting for me!
I froze. Here was a new abaissement! The instructor (starting to remind me of Captain Ahab) came back to the door and repeated his command. He was quite impatient this time. "Knott!! Park the goddammed truck and come in!"
I could not move.
He walked up to the truck window and looked at me with a bewildered face. “Are you senile?” he asked, with mock sincerity and even a bit of mock tenderness. I should mention that not only was I the best educated student he had, I was also the oldest. “I’m afraid I’m going to hit that utility pole,” I said, wringing my hands and looking sheepish.
The man stared at me with the most incredulous expression the human face can form. It was a combination of rage, confusion, frustration, and sputtering disbelief. After holding this expression, and his breath, ‘til I thought he might be permanently frozen in this attitude, he shook his head slowly, raised his shoulders and turned his hands outward to express his helpless disbelief.
Talking through a smile that dripped with sarcasm, he said, “Well, then, DON’T HIT IT!!”
In a small voice, I said, “OK.” Then I parked the truck without incident and went inside where he had already gone.
That was my abaissement on the blacktop and the creative action it led to. I parked the hell out of that truck and sauntered big-footed, long-legged, and square-shouldered into the classroom. This bursting-with-confidence attitude, this triumphal moment, made me feel very different from the way I had felt just moments earlier, and certainly very different from the way I had felt reading the classifieds and contemplating my worthlessness.
After that breakthough, training came a little easier. I graduated with my class A license a few days later and immediately went to work for a trucking company. Soon I realized that my experiment―even though it was successful―was over. I loved the training, but I hated the work. The same had been true of the army: I loved the training—running obstacle courses and shooting up government ammunition, but I had no interest in becoming a soldier.
I had some notable experiences during the three weeks I actually worked as a trucker. What a horrible job! You drive from one loading dock to another and then to another and so on, for as many hours as you can stay awake. Then you drive home where you sleep for a few hours so you can wake up and drive back to the truck yard, pick up work orders, find your tractor and then hook on to the trailer you’ll pull that day. Then it’s get-to-the-first-loading-dock time.
Toward the end of that three-week period, I had a few moments of extreme danger, and I began to get the message that I should find myself another way of making a living. I realized that danger might be the method the unconscious used to shock me into understanding that I must move on into a job that actually suited me and not to tarry overly long with a transitional occupation. The first frightening experience occurred when I was driving while exhausted, moving mile-after-mile down an interstate highway in the wee hours of the morning. I hallucinated a giant Tibetan tapestry, replete with mandala patterns, hanging in front of the windshield. I had to make the decision over and over to drive on through it without knowing what was on the other side.
Then, I had a harrowing experience one rainy night pulling 60,000 pounds of steel on a flatbed trailer up Lookout Mountain on a slick road. When I finally got to the top, I congratulated myself only to realize that coming down the mountain might be far more dangerous than going up. I put the truck in fourth gear, which had a top speed of 35 miles an hour. With one foot on the brake and fighting a case of really bad nerves, I started down. I noted the gravel lanes cut in the side of the highway to catch runaway tractor-trailers, but I didn’t take much comfort from them. Then, when I finally got a few hundred yards from the end of the journey down the mountain, I saw a traffic light at the bottom of the hill. The light was green. I thanked the gods for granting me this small favor—I did not want to stop at a light and wait for it to change, and then have to go through eight gears to get back to cruising speed. I shifted up into fifth gear and floored the accelerator in a rush toward the light. Just then a man in a shiny new Lexus passed me and cut in front of me. The traffic light turned amber. I was moving too fast to stop, and the Lexus driver was slamming on his vastly superior brakes, causing him to stop much faster than I could have stopped. Jamming on the brakes of the truck on that slick highway might well have caused the truck to jacknife; then the steel rods would have been dumped onto the highway and possibly onto the Lexus. I had been told time and again that steel rods can slam through the back of the cab and kill the driver. The only thing that saved both of us was that the Lexus driver wised up and ran the light and therefore got out of the way before I hit him.
I was frightened enough realizing how vulnerable I was, driving a hard-to-control beast of a truck, and how vulnerable those around me were in sharing the road with me. But then, a few days later, I got an image of my true psychological condition while driving in this steel-can-on-wheels: the image was that the cab of my truck was descending over my mind like the candle-snuffer I used as an acolyte to put out the candles at the end of the services at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Moultrie, Georgia, when I was in high school. I was suffering badly from intellectual isolation, and I was headed towards hopelessness once again.
So now I was desperate for change―a new abaissement? No: no more doldrums. I was in fear of losing my life. I made conscientious efforts to get the hell away from tractor-trailers and, with that motivation, I managed to initiate a new job sequence: I applied for and got a position as head of the world’s smallest government agency, consisting of myself, an assistant, and a secretary. My job was to reform city and county governments in a small south Georgia town so that they offered social services in a seamless and non-redundant way. I found this to be far more difficult than learning to back a tractor-trailer.
When that grant appointment was finished I worked as a distance-learning teacher in a college, where I taught English composition, speech, literature, and psychology. Eventually, I moved into what looked like a true retirement only to be led back into teaching. This time teaching was more deeply satisfying than it ever had been before.
I had experienced directly what Hillman said about the sequential and lightly-bound-together episodes of picaresque serial movement. I began referring to myself as Peregrine Pickle, my favorite picaresque hero from Tobias Smollett’s novel, where every chapter is a new adventure, held to the previous adventure only by the thinnest thread. Speaking of names, I did stay in truck driving long enough to get a CB moniker. One of my several driving partners got fascinated about two things: that I had a Ph.D. and that I poured Tabasco sauce on nearly everything I ate. After a prolonged creative effort to come up with a fitting handle, he dubbed me “Dr. Pepper.”
I miss that ol’ boy. His name was Fuch. “Rhymes with ‘Dutch,’” he used to say before anyone could get it wrong.
E-mail Charles: firstname.lastname@example.org
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