Reflections on Aphorisms #21

I may have gone long-form on this one without meaning to, so we’re still at just two aphorisms for today.

If anyone’s reading, feel free to comment on this. I’m always torn on whether people want to read about the interpretation or my life more (not that I’m pushy; it may be that people don’t want to read either, but if people do I’d like to make it as good as I can).

Aphorism 34

Most people write so they can remember things; I write to forget.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

There’s something sublime in the act of writing. It’s the act of making permanent thoughts which are otherwise fleeting. As a result, it can be used for more than just what it appears to do on the surface.

In the field of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung and others write about the importance of words. By putting something into words, it becomes meaningful. Without words, things tend to just disintegrate; Jung describes what he calls a process of psychic disintegration in many of his patients which often stems from an inability to name and deal with problems.

Writing lets people produce meaning around phenomena in the same way that a conversation might. Actually trying to describe something, even if the attempt fails, is a good step in understanding it. It unburdens the mind.

Describing things in writing also provides permanence. Writing down something important allows it to be remembered even if it is forgotten, since whatever has been written can be recovered at a later point.

In an ironic sense, writing to forget makes sense, even though it’s the sort of active contemplation of an idea that tends to help it go from short term into long term memory with a lot of practice and repetition. Despite this, the brain is still a fickle thing, and any piece of information you encounter is more likely to be gone tomorrow as it is to last for the rest of your life.

If you accept the fact that you have limitations, it is best to plan on those limitations coming to fruition. Writing something means that the consequence for forgetting it is gone.

My Life

I am someone who has what could be described as a busy mind. This isn’t a boast about intelligence. Rather, I am always thinking about something. I actually consider this a personality flaw.

I’m often taken by reverie and fantasy. For whatever merits this may bring in terms of creativity and passion, I have felt stark consequences for letting stuff that is important to remember be abandoned for a passing fancy. One of the greatest things about writing is that it helps remove the entirely unnecessary urgency to remember things.

I also credit my increased writing with an ability to sleep better at night. When I was younger, I suffered serious insomnia. I would be awake for hours after I went to bed. After I left college, I never had these issues. I attribute this to the fact that I have written more consistently about the things that have been on my mind.

The last time I had problems sleeping other than due to sickness or outside interference was when I got offered a freelancing gig on one of my favorite games ever by the creator himself, and got cold called to do it, no less. That sort of favorable excitement I do not associate with any disorder.

I think this is because of how much writing I do. There are very few things that go on in my life which do not get analyzed and assessed. My childhood cat and faithful companion for the past decade and change suffered a stroke back in May, and while I miss her I haven’t shed a tear for her after the day she died, and then more so for her suffering than her loss (though there were a couple moments of self-pity, especially right after she had passed).

Likewise, when I left teaching I had a hard emotional time of it, but I was able to move beyond it. I still have a deep longing to return to it, but I also know that my path lies elsewhere for now.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no sorrow, but it never conquers me. There are a lot of factors in that: faith, perspective, stoicism. These are things I’ve consciously developed as a result of my writing and reflections, but the act of writing and reflecting itself is perhaps an even greater factor in overcoming the situations I find myself with. It’s something I didn’t have ten years ago or even five years ago. Just over a year ago I had let myself descend into a slump, and working my way out of it was hard.

Now I don’t enter that slump. I am vigilant against the chance of some new and great trauma coming along to shatter my psyche, but the work I’ve done has strengthened me and bolstered my discipline.

I have written on and off for the last decade or so on whatever catches my fancy. I don’t have a total amount of writing that I’ve done, but I’ve probably written at least five million words over the course of my adult life. A lot of that hasn’t been personal, but an ever-increasing share has been.

That’s been a great way to work through stuff. My paternal grandfather always wanted me to write journals when I was a kid (I mean, he still does), and I never really wrote about my life. I would try and put the things I considered to be the products of mind on paper, but I would never write about my self, because I didn’t have a good concept of the self.

Resolution

Write so that my mind can be free.

Create when it is possible to do so.

Become better at bringing thought to fruition.

Aphorism 35

The sad truth is that man’s real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites – day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battleground. It always has been and always will be; and if it were not so, existence would come to an end.

Carl Jung, from Man and His Symbols

Interpretation

The notion of archetypal duality is one that is central to Jung’s work. I don’t think that Jung’s understanding and point is that the universe isexclusively dualistic (e.g. comprised of opposites), though I do not intend to disagree with it. I simply cannot support a notion which I’m not entirely certain of.

I will agree but there are some interesting ways that we perceive the world. I’ve read some of Joseph Campbell’s work in comparative mythology and literature. What I take away from it is that whether or not the universe is truly dualistic in essence, it is definitely comprised of extremes in our minds.

Things tend to fall into one extreme or another because we have a need to come with concrete judgments to any situation we encounter. I don’t know what is the origin of the human tendency. I’ve heard people say that it is survival mechanism and a biological limitation in turn, and truth be told I don’t think it’s significant to ask why this is the case. That is evident should be sufficient as a starting point.

One of the other reasons why we tend to form concrete perceptions rather than appreciating abstract nuance is that it is easier to communicate the simple than the complex.

Not only does our ability to put something into words have an influence in our ability to communicate and perceive it, but there’s also the simple fact that we don’t always have time or skill to deal with more complex topics.

My Life

I’m generally a devotee of Jung’s, and while I do not necessarily agree with everything he says I think he is correct more often than he is not correct. This is, I believe, generally a good measure of whether or not someone is worth listening to. I don’t expect perfection from people: rather, I would be surprised by it.

Looking back on the earlier years of my life, I can see a conflict within myself which I was unaware of at the time.

I don’t think I ever had anything quite as intense as humans internal conflict, which he details in his autobiographical work Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Amazon affiliate link; I am currently listening to the Audible audiobook, and I am as enraptured by it as I tend to get when reading or listening to a great book). However, I can now see in myself a great deal of confusion over the way that I had wanted to live.

I grew up religious. Unlike Jung, whose father had doubts about his faith despite being a member of the clergy, I felt that everyone else had stronger experiences than I had, while my own were relatively weak.

This was a sort of irrational fear, because I have always been deeply spiritual. However, while most people associate the spiritual feelings with a sense of chaos (in the sense that chaos is the great unknown), but I always had a sense of comfortable order from them. My early awareness of God was that of everything being in its place, something which was perhaps even not God but rather an idealized notion of God (insomuch as something great can be idealized as something good, because my more mature understanding of the sublime nature of God is much more meaningful to me).

It was only later as an adult that further experiences would shape me. When I was in college, I had a mentor teacher who was unsupportive and actively hostile to me. She filed complaints against me (which I maintain were mostly undeserved) which led to me nearly having to change my degree program and endangering my ability to go on to teach. I have written about this before in more detail, and the recollection is painful to me, only a little, so I will not give an account of it in great detail here.

At this point in my life, I had known relatively little chaos. There were some small family matters that caused me some minor distress, but the worst of these was nothing that would be considered unusual or traumatic. In fact, my family life was probably peculiarly stable, owing to the prudence and good judgment of both my parents. My father’s work was sometimes unsteady, mostly due to the companies he worked for, but we were never financially ruined due to his foresight and dedication; one of the greatest fears in my life is that I will not grow to appreciate my abilities in the same way he underestimates his own.

The experience with my first attempt student teaching changed the way that I viewed the world. I had already had the inklings of some notional chaos from the periods where my father was between jobs, but it was only with my own personal chaos behind me that I realized that there is going to always be part of the world that I cannot control.

I had failed previously in various things, but they were all relatively minor. None of them posed any threat to my future. And it so was that I had my first encounter with what Jung would describe as archetypal chaos.

It is difficult to explain exactly how the event changed my life. I wouldn’t use the term bitterness to describe how I felt, but cynicism sounds too mundane. For a while, I slipped into what one could call a depression. It is worth noting the difference between clinical depression and depression as an emotional state, just that the two are not aligned (namely, it is easier to exit the latter), despite their similarities. The state that I was in (with maladies consisting primarily of sleep and appetite disruptions) was entirely psychogenic, a consequence of entering a state of purposelessness.

I did not appreciate this for what it was, or grasp that I had entered into archetypal chaos unprepared, and it had very nearly destroyed me. Fortunately, I was surrounded by people who supported and cared for me, and with the help of friends, family, and members of my church I was able to get back on my feat.

I returned to school, got a part-time job as a game designer, and by the end of the year I was more or less entirely back to normal. I had a great mentor teacher in a great placement to finish my student teaching, and even had time to work independently on my own games–I had to leave the game designer gig in the fall because of my student teaching, but I could always write a few hundred words in the morning or evening.

When I graduated with my degree, I had found myself back in the realm of order. In this world, good and evil is clear. Everything is clearly defined, and you know your place. I was relieved.

Then the search for a teaching job came. Since I graduated in December, pickings were slim even with a teacher shortage. My experience has had made me more selective in the jobs that I was going to take, perhaps due to an aversion to dealing with uncertainty. I was not in a hurry to test my skills again.

I had also finished work on my first big solo game. I did not expect to make money off of it, so I was not disappointed when it made pretty much no money at all. It was a passion project. However, on the day that I announced its release to my family with some pride (it had exceeded my low expectations, though not by much), my father made a remark but I do not recall precisely, but which questioned whether I would ever move out of my parents’ home.

At this time, I had never planned to make any real money to sign in games. I didn’t care to work with studios, I think this was a hold-over from some of my prior experiences that year, both in terms of my newfound disdain for uncertainty and the fact that the games that I had worked on before going solo had fizzled out before publication or even testing, despite receiving good feedback.

I developed something of a complex about criticism–or perhaps about negative feedback in any sense.

During my first year teaching, we administered assessment tests which showed us real time progress for students. I was not aware that the preview of students levels assumed that they would miss everything they had not completed, and about halfway through testing I looked at the feedback on the computer.

All or most of my students were failing in every class. I have never had an experience quite as harrowing as that, if only because of the abrupt nature of the experience. These tests were used to assess us teachers as much as the students.

In the end, the students did fine, but this instance is typical of my responses during my first couple years teaching to any chance of failure.

I think this ties back into Jung’s point because the reason that this distress occurred to me was that I was met with uncertainty.

I did not yet have the confidence in myself to accept my own definition of success. This led to me being in the no man’s land between two concrete notions of success and failure. It’s worth noting that success and failure have never been truly divorced from the notion of good and evil. As much as we have made progress in assuming that those who suffer do not suffer because of wickedness and those who succeed do not succeed because of virtue, we do not accept randomness in our own lives.

The failure to see that these dichotomies have middle points and that they are constantly in motion was a cause of persistent angst for me. In that sense I think that the idea that Jung has left out of this statement is that the mutually exclusive dualism of many parts of life is not as mutually exclusive as the term “inexorable opposite” would imply.

Resolution

Pay attention to the dynamics of things.

Never forget that things are in motion and must be kept on top of.

Don’t be afraid of the unknown, harness it.

Reflections on Aphorisms #7

Another day, another bunch of aphorisms.

I’m moving up to four, because I think that’s a good number for a day. I don’t know if I’ll keep this pace forever, but today’s a day I feel like doing more writing than usual.

Aphorism 11

To understand how something works, figure out how to break it.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

One thing I remember from a book on psychology is that there is a tendency to ignore that which works as expected.

Many of the things which we observe are the product of processes that are opaque to us.

When something breaks, we get to see inside it in a special way. We do not even need to break it entirely, but just contemplate the breaking, anticipating what the consequences of an unusual event would be on something we otherwise take for granted.

My Life

I tend to be prone to anxiety, so I maybe have an alternate side of this equation: I obsess over how things can break, and that means I don’t always even see how they work.

However, I think there’s also something to be said for my life being a product of a comfortable routine. I tend to do the same things day after day.

One of the things that also could be applied to this is that I’m so prone to rigidity that I don’t permit myself a chance to consider what could otherwise be if something were to change.

We often think of people who view the world as opportunities for the strong to triumph over the weak as cynical, but there’s also something to be said for looking for vulnerabilities so that they can be healed: this is the origin of all reform.

Resolution

Don’t fear chaos.

Subvert my expectations.

Search for weakness everywhere.

Aphorism 12

A prophet is not someone with special visions, just someone blind to most of what others see.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

Much of what we regard as innovation comes from trying to do something without following previous paths.

For every person who has managed to invent a new technology by incremental improvement, there is another person who has found the way by going through a paradigm shift from others’ approaches.

For a darker twist, prophets don’t have the good sense to leave good enough alone. The saying that no man is a prophet in his own country is because the prophets get killed in their own countries.

Also, Taleb’s known to be something of a contrarian, and one could probably point out that seeing differently does not necessarily differ from seeing in a special way.

My Life

A friend of mine told me that I was a man of vision the other day.

I’m not entirely sure what that means.

I do, however, identify with the being blind to what others see.

I’ve never felt a need to follow others or conform (aside from the agreeable part of my personality, which is strong; the difference is that I hate confrontation, not that I like conforming), and that may have something to do with it.

I also have a spirit of “I’ll do it myself.”

Like, as a game designer I want to make my own thing. I’ve occasionally built off of something someone else created, but only for smaller projects.

When I take inspiration, it’s often from the most minute of sources. I’ll borrow a dice mechanic, but not a lot of the intervening structure.

That’s not to say I throw everything away and strive to be different, I just have no qualms with ignoring how other people do things. Often I blend a bunch of little pieces together.

Resolution

Go against the flow.

Look beyond conventional wisdom.

Never forget that what you know to be right is not necessarily right.

Aphorism 13

The man who listens to reason is lost: reason enslaves all whose minds are not strong enough to master her.

George Bernard Shaw, quoted in The Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

I think that this ties in to the things that Taleb said about approaching from vulnerabilities in the sense that we tend to look at things from a very fixed perspective.

Shaw is an interesting figure, given that he tended to be a bit of a political loudmouth in his day, and he was perhaps one of the people who we would consider a defender of reason, which makes this quote seem paradoxical.

Chesterton would argue that Shaw just doesn’t have any consistent worldview, and the two were frenemies in that way, but I think there’s maybe something more deep here.

Shaw isn’t saying that logic is bad, but that we have a tendency to rationalize. Our reasoning is easily bent to corrupt purposes, rather than the best path.

My Life

I am someone who tends to be what I would describe as “rational” in focus.

I don’t have the hubris to believe that everything I believe or think is correct. This may not be clear to an outside observer (after all, I write prolifically about my life and what I think), but keep in mind that most of my writing is more of an exercise in holding myself accountable than an exercise in proclaiming mastery in wisdom and knowledge (when I write a book, that’ll be the statement of mastery).

I was thinking about this the other day, because my intuition is really repressed. It’s not that I don’t get feelings about things, it’s that I’ve become so used to just squelching them that I ignore what could be good opportunities to break out of patterns (e.g. not applying for freelancing work for basically forever until it just fell into my lap).

Resolution

Don’t justify things. If they can’t stand on their own, they shouldn’t stand.

Break the mold and throw it away.

Follow passion.

Aphorism 14

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Socrates, quoted in The Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

For most of my life I’ve thought this was sort of self-serving.

However, now I think I interpret it differently.

This is perhaps history’s most profound way of saying “Don’t be an idiot.”

We like to see this saying as a cornerstone of Western philosophy, but I don’t think that the Greeks necessarily thought of their philosophy in the same way that we do.

I think they were going after better ways of life (this is non-controversial), but that there wasn’t really any elevation to it. Being a philosopher was just another way to say that you were prominent in public morality and ethics, not that one was set apart.

My Life

I like to think that my life’s pretty well examined.

Of course, I don’t know how true this is, strictly speaking. I’ve got a lot of things that I have to work through, and I’m pretty self-reliant in my efforts.

I’ve often thought about psychoanalysis. I’ve never been psychoanalyzed, and I don’t (believe myself to) have any symptoms of psychological disruption. That’s not to say that I’m particularly free of vice, but my vice is natural and mainline (e.g. I’m typically pretty lazy and I don’t resist the temptation of sweets well).

I’ve read a lot of Jung (relative to the average person), and also some of his followers’ work, a little Freud, and other modern psychology books, and not just the pop psych stuff. This has just been for casual enjoyment, not as a student or future practitioner, but I find it interesting.

I often find that I’m more interesting than I think I am, and my motives are more complex than I believed them to be. I often have vivid dreams that I’m willing to say are my subconscious, and I’ve often seen recurring symbols and patterns in them. Not just the common “Oh crap, I’m late to class!” anxiety dream, but some really surreal things.

For instance, I’ve noticed animal symbolism; the cat seems to represent some aspect of my subconscious, and mythical and realistic cats feature prominently in my dreams as guides. Birds are another recurring symbol, often of chaos or naive desirous destruction (think of the depiction of Frankenstein’s monster accidentally killing an innocent–something which is a later invention and not in the original story–I often play such a role, often to a hawk or eagle).

There are places that feature prominently in my dreams as well; my childhood home (no surprise there), but also places that I know but have never seen. I was told as a child that nobody could invent something wholly from their own mind and would require a stimulus to invent something. This bothered me quite a bit, because my vivid dreams, which my studies of Jung have convinced me are a function of the subconscious, have been with me most of my life, and have indeed dwindled and fallen off over the years.

When I was a child, I was often convinced that these dreams had a prophetic quality, that there was something about the dream world that could reflect unseen elements of a larger reality. I only raised these beliefs once or twice, and both times the response was such that I never mentioned them again.

The story of Joseph, who interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh, was one that resonated strongly with me for this reason. As a devout Christian, I follow the orthodox position that God sent Joseph the gift of interpreting dreams, but that does not mean that the Jungian method of viewing the dream as a channel to the subconscious is necessarily incorrect, and psychoanalysis may actually have a very similar practical effect.

Of course, fortune tellers can always be right if you wait for the situation to fit the prediction.

Resolution

Don’t do anything I can’t explain (though I don’t have to justify it).

Look deeply at things.

Never run when a walk suffices.

On the Collective Unconscious

Jung’s collective unconscious is heavily misunderstood. It’s not quackery; it’s based on the assertion that there are biological or memetic imperatives that have been passed down from generation to generation, and also parts of the unconscious mind that function in a way that are common between people.

One can argue about Jung’s implementation, especially about whether or not the archetypes he identified are accurate and meaningful, but there seems to be a very concrete provable fact here: the psychology of people seems to bear commonalities, even in what would be considered extreme outliers.

Now, whether you want to argue about the more specific cases, like those of mythological figures appearing in unconnected contexts, Jung’s notion of synchronicity (mutual meanings, but diverse causes) is important as well: if dragons appear in mythology around the world, there does not need to be a real dragon or a social connection for those things to form. Instead, those can be independent functions of the way that people perceive the world and form a conception of the unknown.

Think of the collective unconscious as this: if you put three people in a white featureless room with a red circle painted on one wall, they will all see the red circle and Jung would argue that they all perceive the same thing.

The value they derive from that circle comes from the conscious mind. One person might consider it an eyesore, one might think that it has deep symbolic meaning, and one might fear the unknown entity.

However, they might have associations with the red that are common. If it were a crimson shade, it might evoke the effect of blood.

Thus, the collective unconscious may have deep and complex elements as Jung proposed, but it almost certainly exists at least in a form as a consequence of the brain’s physiology and common formative experiences with universal human concepts (like the risk of injury).

Disclaimer: I’ve read Jung, but I’m not a master of his work. This is sort of a rambling trying to make sense of his work rather than a masterful explication of it.

On Being Everything

Recently, I have been reading Montaigne.

The full ramifications of this have yet to be seen; he is an interesting figure, and his writings are even more so, full of anecdotes and ramblings. His works are deep and profound, but they’re also shallow and lighthearted. Simultaneously with contradicting himself, Montaigne seems to be right about everything, which is infuriating.

I have also been working on the aspirational identification of myself with the heroic individual; I feel that this is a necessary step for me to improve my own life and the world.

Undergoing this process is something that is painful, often difficult, and also requires equally painful and difficult soul-searching.

One thing that I will do is consider maxims and then decide whether they are true or not. I try to come up with these as creatively as possible, or use what I read as an inspiration.

Today, one of these maxims popped into my head, and it was rather troubling for me:

I am everything in the universe.

Now, I don’t know how much I trust the random thoughts that pop into my head. In fact, I actually trust them very little. My brain is very good at free association and wandering aimlessly and without purpose. Most of the maxims I try to apply to myself are true only in part, which is perhaps the fundamental element of the human condition.

In any case, to the extent that the above statement is true, I don’t believe that it is necessarily a positive. At least, I do not interpret it in a sort of heliocentric egoism.

Rather, I think there is something to be said for the human spirit as a tabula rasa. Not necessarily in Rousseau’s noble savage conception of it, but rather in the sense that a person undeveloped can turn into anything.

I grew up in a traditional Christian upbringing, though I was not really acquainted as closely with theological traditions until I became older.

Two important traditions within Christianity, or at least the sect of Christianity that I find myself within, are those of original sin and total depravity.

Pairing this with the seemingly blasphemous maxim that popped into my head, it becomes immediately apparent that there are limitations to this, but it holds some truth.

This gives birth to a truer maxim, one which is more measured:

I am capable of becoming everything within my limitations.

The problem with this is that it is not necessarily a positive statement.

I’ve read a fair deal of Jung, though not as much as I would like. One of Jung’s most influential concepts in my life is that of the Shadow, the darker inner side of the subconscious that is hidden from our waking life.

In my life, I have the luxury of being relatively moral. I have made, generally, decisions which I can look back upon with at least a veneer of respectability, though I would say that I have made decisions that have generally benefited the world. I might be barely breaking even, all things considered, but I am at least not dragging everything down.

But I could be.

When I was a young adult, I had my first experience with holding a gun. My mother had paid for my brother and I to go to a firing range (I do not remember the circumstances that led up to this), and we had a rental lined up.

I remember relatively few of the details; I was able to piece many of them together later from the benefit of reflection, but they are not as important as the general experience.

When holding that gun, I had the realization that the power of life and death was in my hands. Perhaps, it would be appropriate to point out, it was only the power of death in my hands.

Barring my initial anxiety–my knowledge of guns came only from the movies, and while we had gone through the basic safety guidelines my brother and I were left to our own devices on the range–the event passed without incident. I was not a good shot, and remain mediocre at best to this day despite a few more trips to the range, but the sensation was familiar.

A similar sensation washes over me when I drive a car, a knowledge that I have within my capacity a great deal of harm.

For a while, I lived in terror of this feeling. I could not put it in words, but my own danger, that is, the danger I posed to the world around me, scared me.

The result was internal conflict. In the Jungian sense, I had awoken a dragon within my Shadow, but I had not figured out how to confront it.

Later, when I was reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life (affiliate link), I would discover that this is a common ailment.

I had not considered the fact that everything resides inside me.

This is not to be interpreted as a manifestation of hubris, because the everything within is not manifest in a complex form. Rather, it is as if the elemental motives that make up reality, matter in the sense that the things that matter are matter, all exist within me. They are latent, but awaken in tune with my spirit.

To overcome the dissonance within my psyche, I had to reach the realization that I was not just a good person. The notion of a good person is so vague by definition that it is easy for us to categorize ourselves as such. I often witness children ask if they have been good or bad, as if seeking exculpation. The truth of the matter is that nobody can make that assessment on a reasoned basis. The complexities of reality are such that judgment to the point of condemnation (though not judgment to the point of discernment) is impossible.

The truth is more complex. As I mentioned earlier, I have begun to better envision what a “good person” is; I have begun a process of alignment with the heroic individual who embodies those virtues that I wish to embody.

The counterpart to that is recognizing that there is a fraud, a war criminal, a traitor in every heart. Each step taken toward virtue means a step taken away from blind convention. Peterson would describe this as going from order to chaos, and this is a good conceptualization of the process.

There’s a Nietzsche-like element to the process. Stepping away from habit and toward a place where one can develop virtue also leaves one prone to stepping into darkness. The pursuit of light does not come without a risk of hypocrisy, of bringing the wrong elements of the self into dominance.

This is the Jungian Shadow: you are sheltered from your weaknesses by sticking to the rut, but to move beyond you must confront the worst elements of yourself and risk disaster.

The dragon I had to fight–the adversary I am still facing–is that the potential for great disaster lies within my own self, within my best intentions and the potential for me to give into baser desires.

I am everything in the universe, in its basest form, and that’s not as good as it might seem. I strive to inflect myself in such a way that I develop into the ideal; to pick up my cross and follow the righteous path.

Being a Hero

One of the things that I often struggle with is explaining to people why literature is important.

It’s not for lack of faith in the topic, or any particular hesitancy to share, it’s just a complex matter.

However, I’ve been doing some reflecting recently and I think I’ve come up with a good explanation.

Stories teach us how to be a Hero. Not a little-h hero, but a capital-H hero; someone who engages with the universe.

Continue reading “Being a Hero”

Review and Reflection: Man and His Symbols

Recently I finished reading Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols (affiliate link), and it’s been one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read, albeit a difficult one.

I’m going to start off with a review of it, then move into my more personal thoughts to better organize them.

Review

I read Man and His Symbols on Kindle, and it was well-formatted and organized. All the illustrations appeared clear and there were no perceptible typographical issues.

Looking at a book like Man and His Symbols it is hard to give a definitive review because of its nature. It is an overview of a lifetime of work, compiled not only by Jung himself but also by Joseph L. Henderson, M.-L. von Franz, Aniela Jaffé, and Jolande Jacobi.

The foreword by John Freeman is also of interest, and helps quite a deal in preparing the reader for what they should know about Jung.

Man and His Symbols is the first book by or about Jung that I have ever read, so I approach it as a novice who had some knowledge of Jung’s analytical psychology, but not strictly speaking all but the briefest of understandings. My knowledge was influenced more heavily by people like Joseph Campbell and Carol Pearson who have built on Jung’s ideas but approached them in a much different direction.

So with that said, many of the concepts were at least familiar to me, though my understanding of them was far different from what Jung’s intent was, colored as I was by casual discussions and partial understandings.

Actually reading Jung’s work first-hand in a manner intended for novices like myself changed my understanding of his philosophy and understanding of the psyche dramatically.

Each of the writers featured in the book has their own approach and intent, but the core concepts remain the same. In this way, I think that Man and His Symbols may actually be an ideal introduction to the work of Jung; Aniela Jaffé’s interpretations of symbolism in art particularly helped me break down some of the concepts.

Through drawing on the various authors, Man and His Symbols becomes a conversation as much as it is a statement, and it is much better for it.

I have launched into Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul in audiobook format, and the comparison of the two perhaps best presents an opportunity to describe Man and His Symbols in a way that makes sense.

Man and His Symbols is a survey of Jung’s ideas. It’s deep nonetheless, but the traversal into this depth is assisted by the various inflections that the different contributors to the volume add. It benefits from having a vast array of inputs, including connections to mythology and legend as well as anecdotes and examples of psychoanalysis in practice. This give an opportunity to fully express the notions it contains, but not necessarily to explore them fully. It is a starting point for further reading, either of Jung or those who were inspired by him.

There were things in Man and His Symbols which I understood the concept of, but not all the nuance of. Jung’s explanation of the collective unconsciousness, for instance, didn’t really click for me: I understood what its role was, but not what its essence was.

Modern Man in Search of a Soul is a different sort; it is a very detailed study of one particular topic, and while it too draws from mythology, anecdotes, and psychoanalysis in practice it is much more deep: if it were the first work of Jungian analytical psychology that I had read I would be greatly distressed by trying to understand it, but as a follow-up to Man and His Symbols it is quite interesting.

So, in short, my review of Man and His Symbols is best summed up in the following: If you want to know more about Jung and you are willing to spring further into reading, Man and His Symbols is invaluable. If you want a survey of Jung followed by interpretations by his followers, Man and His Symbols is incredible. If you are already familiar with Jung and understand his work, but you want to dive into the deepest depths of Jung’s works, Man and His Symbols contains interesting overviews. It is not that it is shallow, but it is merely scratching the surface of the depth and complexity of Jung’s total work.

Reflection

Man and His Symbols is an interesting book, to say the least. As far as reading books for the purpose of self improvement, it’s definitely in the top five or so books that I’ve read, and I know for a fact that Jung influenced Jordan Peterson, whose 12 Rules for Life I not only enjoyed but also benefited personally from; Jung’s work is also referenced in Peterson’s Maps of Meaning, which I have been reading on-and-off for a longer amount of time than I care to admit to (admittedly, it is a rather voluminous tome).

While finishing up reading Man and His Symbols I also listened to Johnathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, though I did not write reflections on it and I don’t currently plan to. However, there is an interesting intersection here.

One of Jung’s teachings is the collective subconscious, and while Haidt’s work seems at first to dissuade from such an assertion (after all, he finds that moral judgments are generally culturally instilled), he has also found moral foundations that seem to underlie these moral decisions.

In essence, what people value, and how they perceive the outcomes of actions, influence their tastes. The moral foundations seem to be themselves tied to some sort of universal human mode (assuming, of course, that they are not hogwash) of thought. This seems to line up well with the notion of Jung’s collective subconscious, and help to explain theories of the mind and how it interacts with archetypes.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have put off writing this reflection for almost a week, and in that time I have also listened to a good portion of Modern Man in Search of a Soul, which means that my reflections are therefore colored by both Haidt’s work and further readings of Jung.

Since reading Man and His Symbols, I have become very conscious of my dreams. I do not mean that I am hyperaware of them, though I think I may remember them better than I used to because I have placed an increased importance on them, but rather that I spend more time reflecting upon them.

The results of such a self-assessment can be both encouraging and discouraging. On one hand, I have been able to reduce my stress and give myself a more positive outlook on life (though the portion of my life that I have entered into is the happiest of my life, and God willing it will remain so), but on the other I ask more questions, more deeply.

In this sense, reading Man and His Symbols has created for me a small conundrum, namely that of self-analysis, which carries dangers in and of itself (Shakespeare is not errant when he writes that the eye sees not its own reflection), but it has also practically helped me to sort out some of my anxieties. As someone familiar with Pearson’s work, the concepts of the shadow and the archetype are not novel to me, but Jung’s explanation is derived from his fascination with the mind, rather than the more practical slant that Pearson takes.

A year ago, I would have disdained Jung as being quasi-mystical. I don’t deny that there is an element of the mystic in him, but my perspective on that aspect of his life has changed. Jung is clearly in awe of that great unknowable, ineffable, uniquely human element of the mind-psyche-soul that blends conscious and unconscious.

Reading Jung, one is struck by how much less we have learned than we think we have. Haidt writes about people who have suffered injuries to the parts of the brain that are associated with emotion, and how they are paralyzed by analysis and make worse decisions than their uninjured counterparts.

Jung presents the unconscious in a way that one cannot help but draw parallels to the role that emotion plays. The subconscious is powerful and we cannot understand it (at least at present, but probably we will never understand it). As someone who is religious, this doesn’t particularly bother me, since my own personal belief is that the subconscious is potentially a connection to God and things beyond ourselves, and this seems to mesh with Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious

The anima and animus concept were known to me at a very basic level before I read Man and His Symbols, but I didn’t really understand them until after reading (or, at least, understand them as well as I now do). I think that it’s an interesting thing to consider, especially when looking at characters and how they’re portrayed/developed in fiction.

Part of what I really enjoyed about the book and is probably more personal than broadly applicable is the way that it really helps draw connections between symbols. I spent a lot of time studying literature before I ever really learned to identify symbolism, and that’s something I’ve been trying to compensate for now that I’m aware of what I was missing out on.

Mandala in Context

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of Jung recently, and I’ve been in a section of a book called Man and His Symbols (affiliate link).

Before I go further, I should point out that I’m not much of an artist. I have an appreciation for art, and some basic theory, but not much in the way of practice or (barring some rare instances) interest in creating art. I have aphantasia, meaning that I cannot consciously evoke an image in my mind (though I can contemplate concepts and have vivid dreams, which I can often recall images from in waking).

As I have been reading Man and His Symbols, I have recently reached a section by Aniela Jaffé entitled “Symbolism in the Visual Arts” which talks about the use of symbolism in images.

As someone who is not “a visual person” to steal the language of laypeople, I have often been fascinated by abstract art (though I have a philosophical distaste for postmodern denials of the presence meaning in art), and I’ve been spending some time contemplating the role and presence of symbols in visual works.

Another thing that Jung mentioned in Modern Man in Search of a Soul (affiliate link) is that it’s not uncommon for people to take up the pursuit of a creative endeavor as part of a program of self-discovery; not because of usefulness but precisely because it is a form of self-expression without any other utility to the individual. Since I don’t draw or do art in any meaningful sense, this makes some logical sense for me as an outlet.

For the past couple days, I’ve had an image in my mind of a mandala; these are representations of the self, cosmos, and universe.

The mandala takes the form of a sphere with two internal squares; one oriented as a diamond and the other smaller within it. The divisions are such that three “rings” of eight pieces are formed within.

In my mental image, the mandala is also colored and rotated off-kilter, but as I drew it out in Inkscape I did not think it to be important to start with this.

Each section of the mandala is colored red, yellow, black, or white. A Sunday School song comes to mind in which the lyrics go along the lines of the following:

“Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight: Jesus loves the little children of the world”

Growing up in America in the 1990’s, I always took the lyrics of this song to imply ethnic unity under the banner of the Protestant faith, but as an adult looking back to it decades later, an alternate symbolism occurs to me.

Red, yellow, black, and white are the colors of the four humors (depending on what coloration one assigns to phlegm; while phlegm is not usually depicted as white it was so in my own mental conception of the humors at the time of the image) and the processes of the alchemical magnum opus.

As the Hermetic perspective on alchemy is to bring the incomplete toward wholeness, there is a logical continuation of these elements within the mandala.

The organization of the mandala into sections like this runs against what I would normally picture; I would rotate each ring to be in the same general pattern as the first, yet in the mental image we see that the outer rings have the pairings in sequence with each other; instead of going yellow-red-white-black-yellow-red-white-black they go red-yellow-red-yellow-black-white-black-white in a clockwise manner.

It is worth noting that each of the internal colors is “impure” (e.g. not primary); both so that the dividing lines that separate them remain distinctive but also because this is proper: the transformative process is not instantaneous. I kind of feel like I have a Norton anthology from my college days whose cover has colors similar to these (or perhaps even a mandala or mandala-elements similar to these), but I can’t be bothered to dig it out to check.

However, the mandala in question is not the sole object in the mental image; I have the perception (albeit abstractly) that it is in some way on concrete, that it is at an angle, and that there is a sol symbol in one of the elements of the mandala.

To bring this into actualization, I used an image from Morguefile, a royalty free image repository. Uploaded by the user “scottglennie” it depicts a straight-on view of concrete. The presence of discordant elements within the concrete matches the mental image I have had.

In my image, the mandala is distressed, worn down by the presence of the world. In Krita, I imported the image that came from Inkscape and rotated it to its proper orientation, then penciled in the sol-image. The sol-image is not distressed like the other elements of the mandala, but the barriers between the mandala and the outside world are particularly distressed.

The final image looks like this:

I’m not sure what the reason for this image is (or, for that matter, if there is one), but I am certain that there are deep symbolic meanings to it.

Dividing the mandala into quadrants, we can see that there is an imbalance between the parts; each has two colors that appear only once, and two that appear twice.

Combined with the distress that occurs around the rim of the mandala and the imbalance, I think it is fair to say that these elements represent chaos, though it is also important to note that the mandala is balanced within the whole if not the parts.

The presence of the sol symbol is not something that I have any experience with; a purely abstract mandala would omit it, but it is also not part of a larger zodiac or associated group of elements. Its presence at the top of the mandala may indicate something like a steady course.

If pressed to rationally explain this, I feel like my life is in some semblance of order, even though I have a certain amount of stress and responsibilities, so it is possible that my unconscious mind is creating this image as a representation of the combination of chaos (responsibility and uncertainty) and order (preparation to meet that responsibility and guiding compass of plans, morality, and ethics) in my life.

The distress on the mandala represents the conflict between the individual self and the wider world. I tend to be introverted to an extreme, avoiding serious relationships outside of those governed by my livelihood. One of my goals as I pursue some psychological development and self-analysis is to break free of some of those self-imposed restrictions: to be more spontaneous, agreeable, and open within rational limits.

A Review & Analysis of Storytelling in Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

I’m not always a huge fan of Disney’s policies. They’re a massive corporation, and their pursuit of increasingly restrictive copyright laws is something that is a major concern of mine.

However, I’m also an advocate for storytelling, and occasionally I have to go to the theater with my family and see something solid, and Disney usually delivers that.

Anyway, despite the fact that it’s not even Thanksgiving yet, Disney has already released its version of The Nutcracker, an interesting take on the classic ballet.

For those who are totally oblivious to its existence, here’s a quick trailer:

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms trailer, courtesy of Disney.

I’ve sort of settled into a review/analysis format when I talk about movies (see my previous Christopher Robin and Incredibles overviews on the Loreshaper Games blog), so let’s start with my review, which I will keep free of spoilers.

The Review

Disney taking fairy tales and turning them into franchises is not new, nor is their big-budget live-action formula.

“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” takes that approach to the classic Nutcracker story, with a fairly large departure from the standard format in which the story is told. These do not get in the way of the general conceit, but do make it substantially more complicated.

As a result, it is impossible to say that the film is a faithful adaptation of the ballet or the short stories that inspired it, even though it includes both musical interludes and plot devices (such as many of the characters) who are drawn directly from the original.

The film centers itself around a young protagonist, Clara Stahlbaum, who is experiencing her first Christmas after the loss of her mother and coming to terms with the whole ordeal and moving on with her life. Along the way she enters a fantastical realm and does the standard Hero’s Journey stuff, but that’s pretty much all stories so don’t count it out just because it’s orthodox.

I’d classify it as being fairly character driven, and this is one of the strongest strengths, due to the incredibly solid acting delivered throughout the whole film.

Clara is striving to come to terms with her mother’s death and reunite their family. Loss and coping seems to be something of a common theme for children’s movies, with the Incredibles 2 taking a much milder approach to this in the form of coping with Helen Parr’s new job as opposed to the literal death of Clara’s mother, and in the analysis section I’ll give some theories as to why. However, I will say that there is a good connection between her internal struggles and the struggles unfolding around her, which makes the plot flow really quickly without being too confusing (of course, I am not the film’s target audience).

This film is part of a recent trend of Disney movies aimed at younger audiences that treat their viewers as intelligent, like Christopher Robin was earlier this year.

In general, I thought it was solidly executed in all counts. The acting was solid, the music was quite on point (I’m not even a fan of most of the parts Tchaikovsky’s ballet, despite generally liking his other work, but they don’t over-use the Sugar Plum Fairies motif until you’re sick and tired of it, so I count that as a win), and the CGI was flawless.

The characters are sometimes a little flawed. The character of Clara was fantastic and is a great example of showing heroic growth in a film protagonist, but the main villain (who is revealed in a twist that isn’t incredibly surprising, but this is a movie made for children) comes across as a little shallow (albeit reasonably shallow, as I’ll get into more detail about in the analysis).

One of the things that I do have to say here is that Disney does a good job of paying homage to many of the elements of the original tale, including ballet sequences and set-dressing that is iconic and recognizable. The storyline itself is quite different than the original fairy tale, so don’t expect anything similar in terms of that.

The Four Realms as a setting element is something of a weakness. While Clara’s travels into a Narnia-esque realm set a good window-dressing, there’s an odd feeling that we didn’t really get a good look at the setting, but we also know more than we need to know about it.

Mid-movie setting exposition is tricky, and they did about as good a job as they could, but there were places mentioned and briefly explored that didn’t matter to the plot, and that’s one of the sins of the newer Star Wars movies that Disney should have learned from.

Also, there is literally a character named Sugar Plum in this movie. Sure, I get it, Sugar Plum Fairies, but do you have to name one Sugar Plum? Too saccharine for my tastes.

The Verdict

All-in-all, I’d say that this is a good movie. A star-studded cast delivers a PG-rated performance that’s not going to go down in history as great, but is also not the worst use of your time.

I’ll be honest; I think that this could be a good teaching movie because of the fact that it has fairly little objectionable content and is really rich in symbolism and depth, not to mention the fact that it ties in naturally to a short story that you could read and therefore allows you to use the film as an educational enrichment.

It’s not a Christopher Robin or Lion King tier movie, where it’ll be something worth returning to, but I wouldn’t dismiss it as a cynical cash-grab. If you’re going to the movies anyway, consider it.

Also, it’s not a musical. Misty Copeland is in the film, and she’s fantastic, but you see as much of her in the credits sequence as in the movie itself.

Basically, I watched this movie because I was tagging along, but I thought it was quite good. If I had to quantify it, I’d give it a well-earned four out of five stars.

A Star Wars Rant

This film’s storyline should have been used in The Last Jedi or The Force Awakens to establish Rey’s character.

It’s really strong and ties into all the places that you could want it to go. Change all the set dressing and actors, and you’ve got a perfect setup here.

This movie proves that a lot of the complaints about Disney’s perceived practices are invalid; the film has an incredible diverse cast, all of whom are talented. It has enough development in each of the central characters to make them stand out, without detracting from Clara’s growth. It has comedic relief. It has moments that hit on deep sadness and fear.

The Last Jedi could have had these things too, but it didn’t follow the Disney formula.

The Analysis

There’s a lot to analyze here, and I really thought that this movie was really good at working the Disney magic, even if they didn’t always get the payoff they desired.

Most people are probably aware of the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, but I think that we can take a step back to just plain Jungian interpretation of many of the archetypal symbols that show up in this film.

I’m not sure what Disney’s in-house writing guide says about storytelling; I know that they have something like the Hero’s Journey as an in-house document that they use to crank-out award winning screenplays, but I’d be willing to bet that it’s really in-depth, and that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is going all-in on that symbolism.

And, really, it should. The Nutcracker as a fairy tale has clear and evident symbolic importance to most of its elements, and Disney’s version plays with that a little while being conservative in many ways.

The Known and the Unknown

A large part of any good story is knitting together the known and the unknown. Without having the known world represented, you lack any connection to humanity, but failing to enter the unknown leaves the storytelling exercise pointless.

Stories about people going to work, coming back home, and going to bed, then repeating the process, tend to be boring unless there’s some struggle that makes that process difficult.

This is because, as Jordan Peterson describes in his Maps of Meaning, the storytelling process is about mediating decisions that come about when the unbearable present meets the unknown future.

To put it in simpler Jungian dichotomies, there is the known and the unknown, and a liminal bridge between them. To bring balance between these two things is to bring the mind into wholeness.

Clara’s Animus

The story starts off with Clara’s life in chaos. Her family is beginning to celebrate her first Christmas after her mother’s death, and Clara is clearly not emotionally prepared for this.

She is told that she must keep up appearances, or that certain behavior is expected, or that it is important to maintain traditions. This is the immature animus–the avatar of order–failing to speak to her.

She is lost and drowning in the unknown; she doesn’t know what to do now that her mother is lost.

The feminine often symbolizes opportunity, especially in Jungian interpretations. While the full reasons for this are beyond the scope of this analysis, it is relatively simple to claim that the death of Clara’s mother represents the loss of this optimism about the unknown. It is an end to the positive perceived valance of the unknown that fosters turning the unknowable spaces around us into knowable spaces.

The conflict, therefore, stems from having an imbalance; the world is chaotic and this chaos confronts Clara on account of her mother’s demise. The loss of her mother has stripped Clara of any optimistic worldview about the future; the unknown now represents, quite reasonably, only death to her, because she has lost sight of the potential for a positive unknown.

Entering the Four Realms is an opportunity for Clara to undergo a Hero’s Journey, initiating a growth of character that could also be classified as a bildungsroman.

This controlled and willing encounter with the unknown represents the formation of an animus within Clara’s psyche; she goes after the prize of knowledge, of being able to open a gift left behind by her mother in an egg (symbolic of fertile potential) which can only be opened by a key which has been lost in the Four Realms.

This animus is a means of structuring the world into order once again; by encountering the Four Realms, which were brought to life by her mother and exist in a sort of magical space, she is able to put her thoughts into perspective.

It can also be said that the magical Four Realms have a parallel in similar stories such as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, which is that they carry deep symbolism related to introspection and reflection; they are not only literal places that the characters are able to visit, but a place where the objective reality that filters into consciousness is no longer the governing force and instead the mythic symbolism of the subconscious can filter in.

Rodents and Owls

One of the interesting symbols in the film is that of the rodent. The Mouse King is a key figure in the film, but he winds up being a help rather than a hindrance. The counterpart to them is an owl, an assistant of Drosselmeyer, who is to look over Clara, and who provides her with guidance in a couple points throughout the film.

Rodents are vermin, and typically symbolize chaos and the unknown. However, the owl represents a counterpoint in both representing order and wisdom but also preying upon vermin. Despite this, Drosselmeyer’s owl ignores the rodents throughout the film (for a reason that becomes symbolically important near the film’s conclusion).

Near the opening of a film Clara and her brother try futilely to capture a mouse in their attic, which is significant because it reflects Clara’s inability to adapt her psyche to the uncertainty of her new life devoid of maternal care.

Later in the film, but  still in an early scene, Clara passes down a hallway lined with owl mosaics (I believe on both sides of the hallway, though I only noticed the mosaics half-way through the scene and the far side was obscured in such a manner that I cannot be 100% positive). However, in a brief shot the owl mosaics on one side have been replaced with mouse mosaics. At the end of this passageway, she is brought into the Four Realms.

Over the course of the film, the owl plays a relatively minor role but appears in key scenes in which Clara is experiencing doubt. It reflects the return of the known world’s relevance to Clara’s psyche, allowing her to return to a mental state of order that has been difficult to find since her mother’s death.

It is the rodent, however, as an avatar of the unknown, that is perhaps more important to consider.

The Mouse King is a frequent adversary throughout the earlier parts of the film, but in the latter parts of the film he turns into an ally for Clara and the Nutcracker (whose role is much less relevant to this analysis; he exists primarily to support Clara, but he still provides some deeply symbolic elements to the story).

This transition from enemy to ally–paralleled by the character of Mama Ginger, who is in league with the Rat King–provides the psychological counterweight to the undesirable elements of chaos.

By discovering that the unknown does not necessarily need to be feared, Clara develops as a character into a heroic figure, fulfilling the type that has been set out before her.

The Triumph Over Doubt

In the film, it is clear that the main enemy is not necessarily the unknown, but rather fear and doubt. This is a core Jungian psychological concept. This uncertainty is created by an inability to balance the psyche, something that Clara overcomes.

But it also provides the basis for the main villain’s motivations; Sugar Plum (ugh, that name), who was “abandoned” like Clara upon Marie’s death, is incapable of overcoming that doubt and fear.

This imbalance leads to her seeking to become a tyrant; an out-of-balance representation of Jung’s “dreadful father”, whose role in the universe is to pursue order above all else, even at the expense of change.

The usurpation of Clara’s rightful place as Queen of the Four Realms and the oppression of the populace that comes alongside Sugar Plum’s ascension, as she creates an army of tin soldiers who lack individual agency and awareness, is a classic example of this archetype playing out.

At one point, Sugar Plum explains clearly that with her army, she will never be hurt again.

This symbolizes the key message of the story: It is necessary to accept reality to move on with one’s life, but that process requires self-discovery and acceptance of agency.

Wrapping Up

There’s other things that can be said here, but I’m not necessarily the person to say them and I have constraints on my time, so they’ll have to go unsaid for now.

Basically, I felt like the cinematography was well-done, the characters were generally vivid, and the storytelling had that Disney magic that comes from a deep understanding of the psychology of stories.

Were there missteps? Yes. But I don’t think they grew to the point of detracting from the journey, and Nutcracker is an interesting example of how the Hero’s Journey can manifest, albeit one wrapped in silly window dressing.