The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Entertaining Ideas: Barbara Knott

The Art of Darkness

The name of our journal was influenced by its echo of the wellknown phrase from a song about heart and soul. When I first saw the phrase “art of darkness” ten years ago in the title of Stanton Marlan’s book The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness (echoing “heart of darkness,” as in the title of Joseph Conrad’s novel), I felt a stirring of ideas and images that have interested me for much of my adult life.

Heart and Soul and Darkness go together. They have counterparts in Mind and Spirit and Light. Art contains them all but tends to move away from the abstract toward the concrete. The purpose here is not to set up these oppositions but rather to pay particular attention to the spectrum of images and ideas related to darkness, to search for the art of darkness and the art in darkness. I will be reviewing Marlan’s book and drawing on other sources as well as my own experience. Sources for quotations appear at the end of the article.

Here is his thesis (12):

My contention is that darkness historically has not been treated hospitably and that it has remained in the unconscious and become a metaphor for it. It has been seen primarily in its negative aspect and as a secondary phenomenon, itself constituting a shadow—something to integrate, move through and beyond. In so doing, its intrinsic importance is often passed over.

He adds that it is his intention to “give darkness its due.”

I won’t attempt to do what he has done so well in the book: to “consider how much the historical primacy of light has infused our understanding of consciousness itself.” Nor will I trace, as he has, the complex imagery of the black sun in alchemy. For these considerations, I recommend the 266 pages he has turned out, a splendid performance designed mainly for those with some experience in reading about and using alchemy as an image system for exploring psychology.

My aims are more modest, and my comments are for those interested in fermenting conversation. That is the root idea of the salon: to entertain or “hold between” us some fecund expressions of art and soul, to pay attention to them, to listen and to speak about them.

DARKNESS AND SOUL

John Keats presents a seminal idea in his comments on soul and soul-making (from a letter to George and Georgiana Keats, February 14-May 3, 1819):

Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making”… There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions—but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. …how then are Souls to be made? … How, but by the medium of a world like this? … Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways …As various as the Lives of Men are—so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls … of the sparks of his own essence.

This passage from Keats and the concept of soul-making are elaborated by James Hillman in shaping archetypal psychology. Similarly, the Dalai Lama says (Franck 11),

I call the high and light aspects of my being SPIRIT
And the dark and heavy aspects SOUL.
Soul is at home in the deep, shaded valleys.
Heavy torpid flowers saturated with black grow there….
Spirit is a land of high, white peaks ….

An epiphany:

In 1972 I spent the summer in Switzerland studying the works of C. G. Jung and Hermann Hesse. The lectures were all stimulating and some were dazzling. I don't recall who made the remarks, I think it was Jean Houston or David Miller, but in one of these sessions, I came across the idea that God could be approached through the senses. I can recall how startled I was and how easily and with what gratitude I received the suggestion. Over the next several days I felt a continuing impact as the notion traveled along the paths of my memory and reinvigorated my interest in religious experience.

Much of what I knew about religion beyond the timeless and wonderful stories, was a cluster of abstractions that did not engage me. I am one of those, of whom there are many, who tolerate abstraction and make use of it when necessary or useful (I made an A+ in Philosophy 101) but whose passions are stirred by concrete experience (I majored in literature and later in theater). Most important, I wrote my master's thesis on D. H. Lawrence, and I knew of his attitude toward soul:

…my soul is a dark forest. …my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest. …strange gods come and go from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back. …I must have the courage to let them come and go.

Lawrence wrote about the soul as earthy, allied with body and all its passions and infirmities, and with darkness. Lawrence had prepared me for these academic scholars of religion to introduce a new conceptual way of approaching religion.

In the view I am presenting here, Spirit is aligned with what is light, white, abstract, detached from body and senses. Soul lives through body and sensory experience, pays attention to the world and its infinite variety of creatures, and participates in creation through experience in the world.

IMAGINING DARKNESS, SHADOW, SHADE

Being country bred, I am at ease in darkness… Mary Oliver (249).

I am certainly not always “at ease” in darkness. I recall thrilling tales of the distant panther's cry and the more familiar midnight noises of an uncivil war in the household where I grew up. But I know as well about the journey made by seeds unfolding in the dark earth, of stars across the dark sky, the snaring of fish from dark water, the shedding of dark blood by chickens and hogs as they were slaughtered to feed their human owners.

I learned early that animals have no shame: they nose each other’s genitals and mate in broad daylight and, like the seeds, they bring increase to their kind. Humans enter darkness for privacy to engage in the intimate acts of recreation and procreation.

We also like darkness for meditation and prayer, lit perhaps by a candle, when we seek communion with our innermost life.

In my own meditation chamber, I light a candle beneath an oval mirror from India whose wood frame takes the shape of two peacocks, one on either side, tails meeting below and heads above. Then I turn out the electric light and recline on my bed where I look up at the mirror that reflects the candlelight. I take in images that shine from objects below the mirror on the bureau top: the dancing light finds a tin pitcher that held water just now poured into a small glass bowl. I cannot see the stones that form part of this homage to the elements, but I have touched them and recall their hard, long-lasting presence. There is a shiny ceramic mermaid from my sister and other mementos of loved ones: a letter, two small wooden penguins (one with and one without flippers), a knotted rope, a photograph. My eyes travel up the wall where the mirror frame casts a partial shadow, then across the ceiling where the candle flame recreates the mirror in full deep shadow that contains a smaller and lighter oval shadow made by the paper ceiling shade. The room is not dark, but it is dark enough to shut out distractions so that I can see and hear what my heart has to say.

In the rural life of my childhood, the transition was being made from the darkness of interior—lit in the daytime by indirect light coming through windows and doors and at night by firelight, candles, and kerosene lamps—to full and often too-bright light provided by electricity. That was an important human movement away from darkness. The twentieth century was the first century to be so lighted. We have nostalgia for those former times when we recognize that we suffer from being too well lighted, when we city dwellers now cannot see meteor showers unless we drive to the countryside away from city lights. How often do we wish relief from fluorescent lights in our offices? And in the house, we turn on overhead lights mainly to vacuum.

When the sun burns too brightly, we seek shade. Entering the family grounds at Palmetto, I can feel my blood pressure going down with the drop in temperature caused by richly elaborated shade. The eight acres of land are surrounded by old, tall trees of oak and poplar and magnolia and pine, with privet grown thick between them. The house is centered among a giant oak, a hickory, a Chinese chestnut, some magnolias, mimosas, and poplars. Behind the house is a woods, mainly of pine trees grown up in what used to be a pasture. Sweeping down the front lawn are three large pecan trees, an unusually thick-trunked and sturdy pine, an ancient cedar, and more poplars around a pond cultivated for fish and for reflection. Shade is abundant everywhere, with patches of sunlight sufficient for gardening.

And there is the darkness of weather. For people like me who have rainy, wintry souls, too much sun is maddening. I once spent a week in San Jose, California. After three days of "perfect" weather, I found myself longing for cloud and rain, for thunder and lightning and wind.

Mary Oliver’s poem ends with these lines:

Here at the edge of rivers hung with ice
Spring is still miles away, and yet I wake
Throughout the dark, listen, and throb with all
Her summoning explosions underground.

The notion of darkness as sacred usually comes from artists and poets. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a poem that begins, You darkness that I come from,/I love you more than all the fires that fence in the world, and ends with the line, I have faith in nights.

Art is full of darkness. Somewhere along the way, it came clear to me that art and soul thrive in darkness. Theater is associated with the darkening of the house (not in ancient times when plays were given outdoors in fair weather, but for the past 300 years or so since gas lights and then electricity became available for interior sets). We dim bright light in order to see more closely what theater art wants to reveal. And I think of one out of many instances where darkness receives a positive value in Shakespeare’s morality: the scene in Hamlet in which Claudius has, in the castle's darkness, witnessed players enacting his murder of old Hamlet. Unable to continue this forced look into what he has covered up, he calls, “Bring me some light!”

The idea that we must become blind to the day world and its business in order to see the world of the soul is a recurring theme in art. Think of Oedipus and Tieresius whose "insight" came as a result of blindness. Or try to imagine Helen Keller's brightness without her blindness.

Once when I visited Unicoi State Park in North Georgia, a section of the walking path was set up so that one could experience something of what it would be like to be blind. There were stations a few yards apart, tall round wooden slabs containing things to identify by touch: seeds, feathers, twigs, stones, mushrooms. This kind of experience requiring trust of the darkness is the opposite of the old school hazing games involving blindfolds and bowls of spaghetti said to be animal brains, where fear of the world is set off by darkened sensory experience. We cannot trust darkness unless we can trust the world. I don’t mean a naïve trust that there are no dangers; rather, that self-confidence depends on confidence in the world. To be at ease in the dark allows one to embrace a significant portion of one's life.

THE DARK EXPERIENCE

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

You may more readily recognize an English translation of this often-quoted opening of Dante’s La Commedia Divina:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost sight of.

I have chosen Seamus Heaney’s translation (there are many, with slight variations) because in it oscura is translated as dark (in the quotation Marlan uses, the word given is dusky) and because Heaney’s choice of straight (rather than right) to describe the road suggests a path of linear, undistracted movement. The alternative words are similarly evocative, but the familiar “dark” and “straight” suit my purpose here.

In these lines we have a fecund image, one that has been recognized around the world as a metaphor for the human tendency to walk a straight path for much of the first phase of life and then in early, middle, or late midlife, to find ourselves in a “dark forest” where the “straight path” no longer serves. Marlan (24-5) cites Edward Edinger’s comment that “the theme has no national or racial boundaries. It is found everywhere because it refers to an innate, necessary psychic movement which must take place sooner or later when the conscious ego has exhausted the resources and energies of a given life attitude.”

A personal example:

The early years of my life were spent in a cauldron of family conflict and cultural isolation out of which I formed rigid ideals of marriage (bend always toward the other rather than away, as if your life depended on it), family (correct all your parents’ mistakes) respectability (create a face to meet the faces that you meet—never mind authenticity), honesty (play fair, or don’t play), avoidance of loss (settle for anything, just don’t lose it), normalcy (don’t stray toward any path that might set you apart), success (make the right choices to move onward and upward), comfort (I will never be hungry again!).

There is a saying that ideals are made to be broken, and I will add that if you don’t break them to allow some fresh air into the cauldron you make of your life, then life will do it for—or to—you. Life is interested in more abundant life. Perhaps that is what is meant by the “fortunate fall.” Eden is an ideal. To be fully human is to fall away from absolutes.

Consider only one of those ideals. What if everything we did resulted in success? Joseph Campbell points out that often we climb the ladder of success only to find out it is up against the wrong wall. If success were sure, how would we learn the virtues of failure (softness, vulnerability, humility, empathy, wisdom)? It’s a simple conundrum, but we don’t often entertain the question unless we are forced to.

Psychologically, there is nourishment in wounding. When psychological blood flows, it can dissolve hardened defenses. This then can be the beginning of true productivity (Marlan, 22).

We don’t like the idea or the action of being forced, and yet we are constantly at the mercy of unconscious (dark) forces, some of which lead us into self-destructive appetites and behaviors, and some of which leave us broken down and ready to create a larger identity.

The Greek myth of Persephone is instructive. The widely recognized story is sometimes called “The Rape of Persephone.” There we find the familiar scene: she is out picking flowers with her girlfriends when she is abducted by Hades, Lord of the Underworld, who takes her down and down, into darkness and forced cohabitation in the realm of the dead. She returns, via a complex agreement among the gods, to live a season of her year in the upper world (and so we have spring), but she herself has been seasoned by the ingestion of pomegranate seeds, so that her life in the upper world now has a strong dose of red darkness mixed into it. I like to imagine the story as one in which she was rapt rather than raped (the words are so close) out of her comfortable, successful, normal, honest, respectable, and uninitiated life into a deeper, richer, and more passionate one. Stories speak of her subsequent majesty, her generosity, her artfulness, and her loveliness, which is the beauty of darkness.

Greek (and other polytheistic) myths recognize darkness without giving it negative valuation. In these ancient stories, there is a place (and a god) for everything. They are rich psychological images.

One cannot know the virtues of the dark experience ahead of time, however. When I was a child, a “breakdown” gossiped about in the community invariably involved a mental capitulation to dark forces of drink or madness. The sad but hopeful truth is that we of a sufficient age are all breaking down much of the time. I have been deeply startled by my own losses, the frustration of expectations, the breaking of ideals. It occurs to me that another mythological figure, the Greek god Pan, the god who best loved life as we humans know it, was called “the startler.” He appears in the story of Psyche and Eros as the one who comes upon Psyche suddenly and then rescues her from suicide by teaching her to value her life and the life around her. He is the catalyst who reconnects her to nature, a psychological movement that plays no small part in restoring vitality to those who are wounded and sick. We are lucky to come across him (in whatever form he takes) when we need him.

Marlan (in The Black Sun, 23) says,

The injured ego can carry … wounding in many ways. The darkening process can lead to a kind of blindness and dangerous stasis of the soul that then becomes locked in a wound, in hurt or rage, frozen in stone or ice, or fixed in fire.

These are our fears, of being locked into such states of soul. Surviving injury and disillusionment takes a certain amount of consciousness in which one recognizes that in every danger there is also opportunity. I am not talking about impetuous movement that causes one to rush past the needed sufferance of loss. There is an old alchemical saying, in your patience is your soul. Sometimes, the soul has to wait in a state that John Keats called (in a letter to George and Thomas Keats, December 1817) negative capability, which he defined as capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

Among the trials set for Psyche by Aphrodite, the final one is a trip to the Underworld to borrow some of the beauty of Persephone. Imagine! The bright day goddess of love and beauty and sexuality seeks some of the beauty of dark Persephone, no longer maiden, whose loveliness has been enriched beyond Aphrodite’s ken by her time in the lower world.

A similar story comes to us from Ancient Sumer (site of present-day Iraq). The Sumerian queen/goddess Inanna makes a trip to the Underworld to visit her dark sister Ereshkigal who, like Persephone, is queen of the nether world and the dead. Ereshkigal's story involves being shunted from the upper world in favor of Inanna and then the loss of her consort, the "Bull of Heaven," whose death she is mourning. In response to her sister's sorrow, Inanna travels to her side. Ereshkigal requires the day-bright and unbroken Inanna to divest herself of one of her possessions at each of seven gates into the Underworld, and when she finally arrives, taken down peg or two—or seven—by these humiliating encounters with gatekeepers, her sister has her killed and hung upon a meathook, an unfriendly gesture to be sure, but a psychologically enriching one for Inanna. There Inanna stays until events set in motion by instructions given at her departure from the day world cause Erishkegal to soften her heart and release her sister. Inanna is, of course, never the same. Perhaps she is more human?

One of the pleasures of living in New York for ten years was in finding such entertainments as Diane Wolkstein's performance of this story at the C. G. Jung Center, where she embodied the contrast between the two sisters and agonized their reconciliation. Ever since I saw her enacting Erishkegal's mourning with cries of "Oh, my insides!" I have found that expression to fit many a heartache.

And from India come images of Kali. Marlan devotes some time to her (56-7).

In [her] black aspect, Kali, the Hindu goddess associated with death and described as “one of the most intoxicating personifications of primal energy in the cosmic drama,” is worshipped by the Tantrics….

He presents an image of this fearsome dark goddess:

In one of her left hands, Kali holds a severed head, indicating the annihilation of the ego, and in another she carries the sword of physical extinction. Around her neck are many human skulls, which reflect the process of dying, which she represents.

Marlan suggests that Kali can be seen as reducing the human soul “to its bare bones.”

He adds, “For the Tantrics, if one’s worship is successful, if one is able to stay the course open-eyed, to dance Kali’s dance, to welcome her, then her blackness is said to shine.”

A dance with Kali is not for the timid or the unready. That sounds as if I know, and quite honestly, I would prefer to remain Kali's grateful wallflower—if choice were possible. I know that I have (psychologically, "in my bones") encountered such ferocity. Who among us has not felt at one time or another as if we were dying, cut off from nature, breaking down, going lunatic, hanging on a meathook, conflicted beyond endurance? Or, as part of nature, suspended in a cocoon, melting, changing, unable to anticipate the outcome? The value to be retrieved by identifying and holding on to such images comes from having sufficient consciousness to see in them metaphors for moods and feeling life.

DARKNESS AND EGO, SHADOW, SELF

Kali is often depicted with her foot on the head of a dwarf. The dwarf is sometimes identified in the East with ignorance. Marlan sees her act as “annihilating the ego,” the ignorant ego, the one who does not know how much it does not know.

The ego is the focal point of consciousness. Outside the realm of the ego is its shadow (what it can’t see about itself) and various other components of the complete human, including the mystery of wholeness.

For C. G. Jung, that mystery is designated by the word Self. Jung recognizes the importance of the ego in soul-making. However, he says that the experience of the Self is always a defeat for the ego, and there we have one of the major themes in Western tragic literature, a paradigm for the experience of becoming a new and sometimes wiser person.

Unconsciously held ideas might include sentiments such as “Life should be fair,” “God will protect and care for me like a good parent,” “Bad things won’t happen to me because I have lived according to this or that principle,” “I have been good and faithful, eat healthy foods, and exercise,” and so on. When life does not confirm such ideas, the innocent, weak, or immature ego is wounded and often overcome with feelings of hurt, self-pity, oppression, assault, and/or victimization (Marlan, 23).

From the viewpoint of ego, our conscious sense of who and what we are, to be broken is like death, an event we resist with all our conscious powers.

Such an interruption of our routine responses to life casts the ego back into its matrix, whether we call it the Self (Jung), the Atman (Hindu) or God. And that matrix may seem to be made of … nothing. David Miller has made part of his life’s work contemplating the virtues of “nothing.”He reminds us (quoted in Marlan 179) of Jung’s comments about the importance of nothingness in human experience. Jung suggests that when one feels “sheer stagnation” and “a barren wilderness,” then is the time to contemplate nothingness, failure of fantasy, lack of inspiration and impregnate it with the interest born of alarm at your inner death. Then, Jung says, something can take shape in you, for your inner emptiness conceals just as great a fullness, if you allow it to penetrate into you.

In a book honoring David Miller, Ernest Wallwork (Downing 39) points to Miller’s interest in therapeutic ideas like Jung’s idea of the shadow:

In David’s take on the shadow, it haunts every thought, every ideology, every religion, every religious perspective, so what we need is to always look for that which is “otherwise”. Although the shadow is consciously experienced as a threatening negative, it conceals a constructive positive. It is by acknowledging and wrestling with the shadow that the complexity of life emerges—whether in our intrapsychic lives, our interpersonal relations or politics.

In Marlan’s discussion of James Hillman’s work (see the conversation going on here!) we find (77) Hillman describing “sudden depressions, when we feel ourselves caught in hatefulness, cold, numbed, and drawn downward out of life by a force we cannot see …. We feel invaded from below, assaulted, and we think of death.”

This is a condition very like being in hell, one imagines. And one might do better to imagine “hell” as “Hades,” which Hillman is doing here—the Underworld of Greek mythology, where there is more than burning going on.

(I recall that in my childhood, “Hades” was a euphemism for hell. Incensed, a person who was reluctant to say “You go to hell!" might instead say “You go to Hades!" Or, "It's as hot as Hades today." But we didn't know Hades was Greek.)

Hillman (summarized by Marlan on 190) also adds this thought, that in alchemy, blackness, as in the dark experience, has a purpose.

It teaches endurance, warns, dissolves attachments, and ‘sophisticates the eye’ so that we may not only see blackness but actually see by means of it. To see through blackness is to understand its continuous deconstructive activity as necessary for psychological change.

That "deconstructive activity" is imaged in Kali's dance.

I want to suggest the value of the alchemical image system in psychology. In the Middle Ages in Europe, alchemy was practiced by persons (precursors of chemists on the one hand and of psychotherapists on the other) who seemed to understand that there is a correspondence between the world of nature and the world of the soul. So they worked the elements: heating, boiling, steaming, returning steam to water, circulating. Sometimes they were said to be searching for the philosopher’s stone and, at other times, for an elixir of life.

Alchemical operations sound very much like distilling whiskey, an activity my outlaw father engaged in, much to my shame (at the time). He, too, was distilling (and distributing) an elixir of life. I wish I had known back then that he was, in his own way, an alchemist. I would like to have seen some art distilled from the darkness. But I could not have seen it then. Such "insight" requires blinding. And that usually comes with age and experience.

The alchemical system involves phases that are given the names of colors. The role of black is important. It is where “the work [called the opus] begins.”

Marlan (93-4) quotes Janet Towbin, “who did a series of black paintings influenced by alchemists”:

[Black] is the beginning of consciousness—you cannot have light without darkness or darkness without light. The dyad of black and white sets up a diurnal rhythm and the contrast is essential to consciousness. This is the symbol of Tao, the yin and yang. In alchemy, the color black refers to the nigredo, a stage in alchemy where there is an inward turning toward creative and fecund activity. It is this level of the psyche’s development that brings with it the beginning awareness of consciousness—a first glimmer of light after the profound darkness of melancholia. Pattern and order begin to emerge out of chaos.

The relationship between alchemy and art, one of the greatest healing powers, is discussed at some length in the book. Here is an example (83-4):

The death of the ego, blackness, and the transformation of the soul, which are so important in alchemy, were also concerns for a number of artists. Mona Sandqvist writes that “alchemy has been kept alive in art, music, and literature by a chain of masters: painters like Bosch, Brueghel the Elder, Max Ernst, and Rene Magritte; musicians like Mozart, Scriabin, and Schoenberg; and writers like E.T.A. Hoffman, Balzac, Gerard de Nerval, Mallorme, Autard, Yeats and Joyce.

Van Gogh comments on his painting The Cafe Terrace at Night, I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.

The theme of art and darkness and healing is given by David H. Rosen in the foreword to Marlan’s book. He says, “Art is healing, and the shadow of despair is the fuel for creativity. Darkness is critically needed in our too-well-lighted world” (opening page).

I return to the introduction for another reason, to pick up a comment that bears on our review elsewhere in The Grapevine of Diane Thomas’ novel (2006)The Year the Music Changed: The Letters of Achsa McEachern-Isaacs & Elvis Presley. “The King must die” is a motif in ancient sacred rituals and in archetypal psychology. The “king” is seen as the ruling principle of the psyche that eventually has to be displaced if the whole personality is to thrive. With that motif in mind, Rosen says this (x):

… Marlan begins with a focus on the sun as the source of light and its association with the King (a divine archetype). He gives several excellent alchemical examples of how the King must die in order to be born again. Closer to home, Elvis Presley, America’s “King,” illustrates the theme of this book in that he represents a dark King. He got stuck in the nigredo (darkness) and was poisoned. However, after Elvis died he continued to live on, reborn as a dark or blue King with an inner spiritual glow.

I am glad that I grew up while Elvis was becoming the king. I knew—again, in my bones—that he was important, not only to me but to the sexually timid world I lived in, where white was white and black was black (both racially and metaphorically). The twain met in him, and the world is better for it.

DARKNESS AND THE WORLD STAGE

We have got this far without referring to dark moments in history. Here are two of which were mentioned in a morning’s news ten years ago when this article was first published, followed by the observation I made then:

Former Mexican President Luis Echeverria was placed under house arrest Friday on genocide charges stemming from a 1968 student massacre …. The attack is considered one of the darkest moments of modern Mexican history (www.comcastnews July 1, 2006).

U. N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told African leaders Saturday that Sudan’s Darfur conflict is “one of the worst nightmares in recent history,” but just one of the challenges facing a continent wracked by war, poverty and disease (www.comcastnews July 1, 2006).

In the background we can hear echoes of Holocaust and Inquisition, not to mention atrocities committed in China and Japan and Africa, and, of course, we hear daily now the cries against American Imperialism and Muslim murder (complicated at the moment by charges against American soldiers for rape and murder of a Muslim girl and her family).

Morning news now, in December 2016, has essentially the same tone and focus.

Keeping in mind that what I am offering here is not the philosopher's stone but a handful of dark nuggets for discussion, I want to introduce another text, James Hillman’s “Notes on White Supremacy.” The term white supremacy both is and isn’t what you may first think. Here Hillman brings his interest in alchemical psychology together with his interest in political psychology.

Our culture, by which I mean the imagination, beliefs, enactments and values collectively and unconsciously shared by Northern Europeans and Americans, is white supremacist. Inescapably white supremacist, in that superiority of whiteness is affirmed by our major texts and is fundamental to our linguistic roots, and thus our perceptual structures. We tend to see white as first, as best, as most embracing, and define it in superior terms (29).

This is a subtly argued and illustrated theme, and I don’t want to work on it exhaustively here, only to suggest some of Hillman’s insights. He comes to this conclusion, that white casts its own white shadow, has its own disease, which as white is indiscernible and especially indiscernible to consciousness defined in terms of light (38).

A bit further on (39), he explains:

Although the differences between white and its shadow are not perceptible (e.g., we can’t see the shadow in our bright ideas, good deeds, true beliefs, honest motives, beautiful feelings, or any of the other Christian virtues which ennobled the conquests, glories, triumphs and spoils of the Christian mission), they are there nonetheless.

He points out (41) that the supremacy of white depends on oppositional imagining. How we came to see the world in white/black (or “colored”) dichotomy is given in some detail. He considers that the ‘white’ identity of northern-western Christian men begins (in English) only after their arrival on the shores of West Africa, mid-sixteenth century ….

He presents (42) an opinion (from Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812, 1977, 4) that Europeans, discovering Africans, were impressed by their darkness to the extent of calling them “black” while neglecting “other refinements.” Hillman says that the first use of white to characterize an ethnic group occurs in l604 (OED), after the identification of Africans as black. He tells us (via Jordan) that the most common term used for themselves by the early settlers of America was “Christian.” And, even though “Negro slaves were baptized and Negroes joined the church … as early as 1641,” Christianity already had become linked with the white complexion. Jordan’s conclusion (42) is that at this time it became clear: to be Christian was to be civilized rather than barbarous, English rather than African, white rather than black.

To repeat the point: the designation of people as white or colored, white or black, has its roots in the Age of Exploration and in the habit acquired at the time of absorbing skin color into a rigid duality of thinking rather than a diversity of perception. Then, according to Hillman (43) the whitening of the West proceeded concurrently with the blackening of the rest.

The essay is rich and dense, and I highly recommend it for prolonged attention to these ideas. Let me conclude my reference to it with a point Hillman makes toward the end (48):

There is no light all white, no immaculate perception. We are all mulattoes of the mind.

DARKNESS AND LIGHT

Returning to the beginning of Marlan’s book (15), I would like to add this quotation from Madronna Holden, storyteller and poet:

There are as many ways to be lost in the light as in the dark. I traced this quotation and found Holden's article in the summer 2001 issue of Parabola that focused on LIGHT. His title was "Light Who Loves Her Sister Darkness," subtitled "The peril of rejecting the night" and, you may have guessed, it was about the Sumerian story of Inanna and Erishkegal.

From David Miller’s review of Marlan’s book (Spring 74) come both praise for his radical and life-engendering thought as well as a warning to the reader. Miller mentions (325) Marlan’s “exposé of the obsessive desire of people for light, which becomes an ego-ideal and results in neurotic suffering when not achieved” as well as his examination of “a violence of light” in which “the darkness of light [pits itself against] the light of darkness” and as well his argument that “there are moments in life and in analysis when ‘the dissolution of the ego is required’.” Eventually Miller adds (326), “What is risked [in Marlan’s ‘giving darkness its due’] is an obscuring of the sun by the blackness, the light by the darkness.” He calls Marlan’s book (328) “the beginning of a process of many reflections rather than a stopping of them.”

To immerse oneself in the virtues of darkness might lead to falling in love—with darkness. Our enjoyment of darkness increases with a measure of light, just as our enjoyment of light is enhanced by shade. We enter a dark world to sleep and to dream. Awakening, light brings much of what we know of beauty. The fullness of light and darkness together can be seen not only in the yin/yang symbol of Taoism but also in the Asian image of the lotus plant whose roots grow under water in the dark mud and its flower above water in the bright sun.

There you are. I hope I have not done disservice to these selected readings, but rather that I have indicated the rich entertainment in them. I wish you good conversation. Here's a final thought from The Mind Unleashed Facebook page that I saw while writing this piece. Imagine large white print against a black background: Things are not getting worse. They are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

Images (in descending order): Dionysos, book cover, John Keats, Mary Oliver, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gustav Dore's Dante, Dante Gabriel Rosetti's Persephone, Kali (traditional), YinYang symbol.

References

Dante, translations. See http://www2.eng.cam.ac.uk/~tpl/texts/dante.html.

Downing, Christine, ed. Disturbances in the Field: Essays in Honor of David L. Miller. New Orleans: Spring Journal Books, 2006.

Franck, Frederick, et al, eds. What Does It Mean To Be Human? New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Hillman, James. “Notes on White Supremacy,” Spring: An Annual of Archetypal Psychology and Jungian Thought, l986.

Holden, Madronna. "Light Who Loves Her Sister Darkness." Parabola 26, 2, 38-43.

Jung, C. G. Mysterium Coniunctionis, para. 190 (via David Miller, “Nothing Almost Sees Miracles! Self and No-Self in Psychology and Religion,” Journal of Psychology and Religion 4-5 (1995): 1-25, via Marlan’s The Black Sun, 179). I am giving the note this way to show the rich conversation going on in Marlan’s book.

Keats, John. Letter to his brother George, 1819 (on soul-making) and Letter to his brothers, 21 Dec. 1817 (on negative capability). Selected Letters, ed. Robert Gittings. New York: Oxford UP, 2002.

Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. Chapter 2. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Marlan, Stanton, “From the Black Sun to the Philosopher’s Stone,” Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, Vol. 74, Spring 2006.

Marlan, Stanton. The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness, foreword by David H. Rosen. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005.

Miller, David L. Book review of The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness by Stanton Marlan (above) in Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, Vol. 74, Spring 2006.

Moore, Thomas. Dark Nights of the Soul. New York: Gotham Books, 2004. I have not mentioned this book in the text because to have brought it into the discussion would have extended the article beyond its bounds. However, the book is a stimulating and useful "guide to finding your way through life's ordeals," and it treats darkness with the same respect and appreciation as the texts I do mention. Highly recommended.

Oliver, Mary. New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Selected Poems, a translation from the German and commentary by Robert Bly. New York: Harper and Row, 1981.

Van Gogh, Vincent. In The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh, ed. Irving Stone. New York: Penguin Books (Plume), 1995.

Wikman, Monika. Pregnant Darkness: Alchemy and the Rebirth of Consciousness. Berwick, Maine: Nicolas-Hays, Inc., 2004.


Copyright 2016, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.