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.

Reflections on The Examined Life

The Examined Life (affiliate link), by Peter Grosz, is a book based on his practice as a psychoanalyst. I was led to it by an article that I had read on The Guardian about the use of cognitive behavioral therapy as opposed to psychoanalysis to treat mental illness. The article itself is more in-detail in its findings than I care to be here: you can read it for yourself if you so desire.

When I was in college, I had to read one of Freud’s case studies for a course. It was a survey of the humanities, and while I greatly enjoyed the class in general I remember being somewhat put off of the whole notion of psychoanalysis by Freud.

It is only through the work of Joseph Campbell that I wound up making a connection to Jung, and from Jung I discovered that psychoanalysis of the sort practiced by Freud was not the extent of the field.

Grosz provides case studies of psychoanalysis that are both analytical (as they should be), but also personal. While there is a limit on how much can be said for the sake of the patients’ privacy, there is also a lot of depth, which makes reading the case studies an interesting and intimate process.

There is something about the way that Grosz recounts things that makes the whole affair into something like a biography of the ordinary man. While it is true that many of the clients that Grosz works with would not technically be considered wholly ordinary, the humility that he expresses and the earnest, down-to-earth practice (including admissions of his own errors or misjudgments) goes a far way toward making the read worthwhile.

All-in-all, I finished The Examined Life in two days. The book is structured into sections and chapters based on topics, though the majority of chapters focus on just one or two cases.

There’s something transcendental in reading such things. Our human minds are capable of weaving mysteries hidden from ourselves, but seeing that same process go on in others shows us something of our essence, to borrow a notion from ancient philosophy.

The structure of the book, as it is, is probably one of its best achievements. I’ve also been reading the essays of Montaigne and listening to a sort of biography-cum-analysis centered on his life and works, and I am immediately struck by the similarity in the broad-topic specific-analysis correlation between the two works, written centuries and languages apart.

I think that it’s possible to see something of ourselves when we read a work like this, both in Grosz and his clients. While some of the examples are extreme (for instance, a child who engages in increasingly oppositional defiant behavior), there are also more common examples.

Upon reflection, I can easily draw connections between Grosz’s patients and the work of Ibsen, or of Miller. There is something that is literary and timeless in the individual mortal experience; an archetypal connection between the being of an individual and the Being of reality as a whole.

There is another side here, a side that Tolstoy illustrates in his magnificent Death of Ivan Ilych, the notion that we are incapable of believing that which we do not wish to believe, as Grosz’s patient who has every possible piece of evidence that her husband is having an affair, but only draws the connection after discovering a neatly loaded dishwasher in his apartment away from home.

However, the art of the psychoanalyst goes deeper; the mind is deep and multilayered, and there are things within it that remain unconscious to the individual, shown in dreams and complexes but not in conscious thought. These things cannot be believed not because they are necessarily abhorrent or because a person is in conscious denial, but rather because they are entirely unknown to us: Jung’s conception of this took the form of the Shadow.

The Shadow is the part of the mind that we are unaware of, the subconscious. Confronting the Shadow is important, because it bears strengths and weaknesses that otherwise are occluded from our awareness. Having these known to us provides us with a great tool to improve ourselves, both by extending our potential and by allowing us to shield ourselves from our greatest weaknesses.

Grosz’ work involves voyaging into that realm, that unknown part of the mind, and retrieving from it treasures. To do so, he must often help his patients vanquish the dragons that guard their inner keeps.

I think that this is why The Examined Life is such a compelling read. It is not merely the fact that it presents a deep picture of each of us as individuals, something which we want dearly to believe for the sake of avoiding the oblivion of meaninglessness. This is an expansion upon the explanation given for its popularity in The Guardian’s article, which I mentioned earlier. However, I think that this is just part of the appeal: it is a compelling read not only for its picture of the human individual as a being capable of worth, but also because it is a reflection of the heroic process.

After all, the individual is meaningless if their actions are also meaningless, but when an action becomes meaningful it provides the actor with meaning. Carry that further, to the greatest possible good, and you have a sort of deity in the form of Meaning: values strong enough to justify the pain and suffering of existence.

Review and Reflection: Captain Marvel

I put off seeing Captain Marvel for a while because it seems to be my norm over the past week to procrastinate, but I’ve also been a little less excited to see it because I saw a good mix of positive and negative reviews from critics I liked: I wanted to see it, but I wasn’t willing to put up with a crowded theater to see it.

So I finally went today (actually a couple days before the publication, but at the time of writing it’s only been a couple hours since I actually saw the movie), and I was actually really pleasantly surprised.

Review

I’d say that Captain Marvel is a 9/10 movie buried in a 7/10 movie. I normally don’t use numbers, but I think it’s a good illustrative point here.

I actually thought all the acting was really good; I’d heard complaints about stiffness, and there were a couple points in dialogue where things wore thin, but also a lot of moments that were really poignant, humorous, or exciting, so I can’t critique the writing too much overall.

Pacing is definitely an issue. I feel like there’s some sort of Marvel convention that says “Thou shalt have movies be more than two hours long” that drove some of the writing decisions. Upon looking it up, this is not true, but for some reason perfectly correlates with the MCU movies I’ve seen in theaters, as opposed to the ones I’ve seen at home (e.g. Thor).

With that said, there’s a lot of somewhat drawn out exposition and even fight scenes, which is odd because for most of the film the pacing feels really solid. Some early scenes feel over-long, namely the first fight between Captain Marvel (or, as she is known at that point, Vers) and the Skrull.

The movie starts with an amnesia plot; Vers doesn’t remember her prior life as Carol Danvers, and eventually figures out who she is over the course of the film (by about the two-thirds mark she remembers who she really is, courtesy of help from old friends; I’m guesstimating because I wasn’t timing the movie).

The big problem here is that we figure out who she is before she is, and the trailers make it clear too. For some reason, either we’re given a larger glimpse into the character’s mind than they themselves have (which, admittedly, is not impossible), or she’s remarkably stubborn about figuring out who she is despite knowing that she can’t remember anything and then suddenly getting memories or flashbacks.

There is a very small attempt to squelch this when another character mentions that she could have had memories implanted (when she has flashbacks that override the amnesia), but the counterpart to this is that the people who would have implanted the memories seem very keen to find out what they are and also act on information they acquired from those memories.

Or, to put it more simply: It’s the one “idiot ball” moment in the film where a character doesn’t realize everything the audience knows and doesn’t have a good reason to do so, and it’s the main character doing it right in the middle of the main plot. Just a tad frustrating, and one of the reasons why I describe Captain Marvel as a 9/10 movie buried in a 7/10 movie: if the audience were kept in the dark, or Carol Danvers had been quicker to re-emerge, it would’ve been great (or at least good). As it stood, it was just a little bit underwhelming in execution, and amnesia plots are overused as a secondary device, much less a primary one.

Ironically, I think it’s probably the final fight scenes that go on too long despite the clear intent to make them epic and flashy. The triumphant battles go beyond what they need to do to show us the power levels of the characters and make a good narrative point, and as much as the eye-candy is up to Marvel’s traditional quality (albeit, a little flashy even by their standards, something I’ll permit because Captain Marvel typically uses powers that manifest as pure light and energy).

A lot of people have argued that it doesn’t feel like Carol Danvers has a personal stake, but I didn’t get that at all. Except in the fight scenes. They drag on and nobody ever seems to really be impacted unless they’re a faceless extra, and even the lesser henchmen take a giant beating and just keep going. It feels like they had a giant CGI budget to use and insisted on using it all, but it just comes across as spectacle. I think if I watch Captain Marvel again, I might actually skip parts of these scenes; they’re well choreographed, but do nothing to actually move the story forward.

I’m not a huge MCU superfan (though I would describe myself as a lesser fan; I’ve liked them all), but I’d rate Captain Marvel in with the others. I don’t think it’s up to the same level as Infinity Wars was, but it’s definitely at the same level of quality as most of the other character origin films.

One thing that did surprise me a little was the fact that the movie was definitely a little crasser than it had to be. I get that they wanted to play up Carol Danvers (both pre-Kree and post-Kree) as someone who would overcome any obstacle, but there were some unnecessary, somewhat crude remarks by male characters that felt forced (particularly a line about “You know why they call it a cockpit?”) and weren’t even as effective at conveying the sexism she faced as some other events that cropped up (scenes where she is told that she’ll never fly as a pilot and where her father is giving her guff do the same without resorting to crudity). I know that Marvel’s moving toward embracing a PG-13 rating, but combining this with some of the other cussing in the film would have put me off of seeing it with young children in tow. I think it could have been as poignant with a little less explicit language and a little more illustration (and, given some of the things that we see fragments of later in the film, I think they may have actually cut out some of those scenes in favor of the more crude ones, which seems a tragedy).

Generally, despite this, I liked it. Other than feeling that it was a little over-long, I thought it was definitely worth watching. If I were the director, I would’ve trimmed it down a little (or added more context to justify the length of certain scenes), but there were a lot of really good moments and I was into it. Samuel L. Jackson was fantastic, Brie Larson did a tremendous job (there were a couple rough spots, but I put them down to the writers), and it was certainly worthy of the Marvel brand.

Reflection

Heads-up: I’ve avoided spoiling as much as possible in my review, but my reflections don’t do that so much.

The strongest points in the film come when we see a heroic struggle; this isn’t surprising, since it’s a point that I seize on all the time, but it’s still one that is quite interesting.

Carol Danvers has a two-fold struggle: the internal struggle of mastering herself and coming to grips with her identity, and the external struggle of figuring out what to do with her life and taking the fight to the Kree, who turn out to be the villains.

That’s quite an interesting side to the story, even if it’s not fully executed.

There’s a moment in the ending of the film where Danvers is being interrogated (for lack of a better term) by the Supreme Intelligence, the Kree AI overlord, and she is thrown into her own stream of memories, watching herself fail over and over again.

Her victory comes when she returns to those memories, watching the next bit: the part when she gets back up after failing.

It’s quite a powerful moment, and perhaps the best in the film, because it sums up what makes Danvers different from the Kree: being willing to get up and keep going, always improving herself, rather than sticking with the situation she’s in. By contrast, the Kree are more involved in their own lives, not wanting to change or grow and suppressing anything that might challenge their assumptions of superiority.


Wrapping Up

Captain Marvel was a good movie, and I’m glad I went to see it. It’s not the best movie I’ve ever seen, nor the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it certainly is worth seeing if you’re at all interested.

Review and Reflection: You Have the Right to Remain Innocent

James Duane is actually a fairly well-known law school professor because of his YouTube video simply entitled “Don’t Talk to the Police” in which he gives the reasons why you should, generally, not talk to the police if they ask you questions.

While he may not be a household name, he does have a couple million views on YouTube just from that video, and he wrote a book on the subject.

Video Courtesy of Regent University School of Law

You Have the Right to Remain Innocent (affiliate link) is basically a longer, more detailed explanation of the legal principles summed up in his lecture.

Basically what it says is to never talk to a government official without a lawyer (who can ask better questions than a potential suspect can about what exactly is going on), and if you are asked questions you should always insist on answering in writing after getting the advice of your lawyer.

It’s an interesting book: well-written, full of case studies, and a little alarming. I can’t attest fully to the legal quality of the work, but Duane seems to know what he’s talking about and he’s gotten praise from judges and law professors across the country, so I’ll take their word for it.

The actual read itself is tremendous. It’s incredibly fluid and elegant, despite the matter of its subject, and it manages to go into nuance almost like a conversation would. It does a good job of sticking to its key point while developing each detail, with the following message: If you try to be helpful, you may only hurt yourself.

The case-studies throughout the book are varied in origin, but reflect both serious and minor crimes that people have inadvertently gotten themselves convicted for despite their probable innocence.

The only down-side I can see to it is that there’s a very singular focus, and the basic information that it contains could be presented more quickly. However, since the reason for this is that Duane gives a tremendous level of detail and background to tell the reader why his suggested course of action (immediately ask for a lawyer and comment only in writing) is important.

One of the interesting things that it points out is jurisprudence regarding the use of the constitutional rights guaranteed under the fifth and sixth amendments. I had the luxury of sitting in on a law class during my undergrad studies, and I’ve noticed that both Duane and my own professor (the late Dennis Karjala) have strong responses to judges’ rulings that often seem to be biased against potentially innocent individuals, for the obvious moral reason of wanting to protect the innocent.

Duane’s number one point is that you need to be clear with demanding a lawyer and saying nothing else until the lawyer has arrived. This seems like it’s a little suspect (after all, this is what smart bad guys on crime dramas do), but apparently due to precedents set all the way at the Supreme Court failure to cooperate can be seen as evidence of guilt.

Reflections

I’m not a lawyer and I can’t give legal advice (nor, technically, does Duane), but the practical advice from the book seems clear: the system no longer really presumes evidence.

I think that’s a shame, but I’m not going to go too far into polemics or politics. Rather, I think that it’s an important reminder to us as individuals to set the cultural tone that we want to see in the world.

It’s very easy to assume guilt, especially if the “legal process” has unfolded, but we also need to remember that things that look criminal often aren’t, and allegations and evidence need to be considered impartially (to say nothing of interviews by prosecutors and law enforcement, who have a stake in putting people away and are able to present information provided by defendants freely, while defense lawyers have a limited ability to do so).

It’s not a happy book, but I enjoyed reading it, and I think it gave me some good information. I don’t plan on tangling with the law, since I’m pretty mild-mannered, but that’s perhaps something that puts me in Duane’s target audience: the people who haven’t done anything, but might accidentally give details that falsely incriminate themselves if speaking without a lawyer present.

I really recommend reading this book; it’s free on Kindle Unlimited, and a mere $0.99 otherwise, and the potential benefits are fantastic.

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.

Reflections on The Road to Wigan Pier (Part 2)

In my last post, I talked about the first half of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (affiliate link), in which he describes the working conditions of 1930’s Britain with a particular eye to the conditions in coal mining towns like Wigan.

The second part of The Road to Wigan Pier is a compilation of Orwell’s thoughts on the situation, and an overview of socialist theory with Orwell’s own interpretations as to both why socialism was not prevalent and what would have to be done to make it prevalent.

It’s worth noting that my own perspectives differ significantly from Orwell’s, and there were very few points on which I agreed with him. This is both due to my own political beliefs deviating from his, but also probably in no small part due to the fact that several decades later many of Orwell’s predictions have become false.

Orwell’s Irony

One of the most ironic things about Orwell’s general presentation is that while he possesses the ability to be brutally honest about himself and with regards to his situation, he winds up falling into many of the traps that he sets for himself.

Take, for consideration, the fact that he describes many British socialists as “cranks” during his overview of why people are not attracted to socialism. Orwell proceeds to be quite bitter, and perhaps even more so than the people he criticizes.

While Orwell does call for a toning down of rhetoric and going from a concept of proletariat and bourgeoisie to a concept of robbed and robbers to appeal to a broader audience, he overlooks the fact that what he endorses is itself no more palatable to most than traditional socialism, bound up as it is in its negativity toward many of the conventions of standard life.

Orwell fails to really provide any example of the “oppressors” in his society; and while he argues that socialists should define themselves by a pursuit of “freedom and justice” in many cases throughout this section of the book, he fails to ever define freedom or justice, much less to give clear examples of why the socialist utopia (or, perhaps, since he is more cynical than to call it a utopia, a socialist world order) would actually be more free or more just than any other way of living.

It also is worth noting that Orwell’s anti-religious sentiment tends to bleed into his arguments; he often says that socialism will replace religion, but seems blind to his own implication that this would only work on the basis of indoctrination and supplanting the spiritual with the political (e.g. creating the sort of Soviet-style commissars that he derides in a couple places throughout the passages).

Likewise, he often actually derides people who are working for justice, like the feminists of the 1930s and charitable workers, as failing to drop everything and accomplish this socialist ideal.

A False Dichotomy

Orwell presents the future as a conflict between socialism and fascism, with no room for a middle ground. However likely that may have seemed from his perch in the early 20th century, the reality that we got is two-fold:

First, capitalism, far from being inevitably destroyed by other factors, has remained alive and well as a dominant economic force, and perhaps even has more principled idealistic adherents than it had prior to the 20th century due to the works of figures like Hayek and Rand.

Second, neither socialism nor fascism has risen to the point of world domination. While Orwell was an outspoken objector to Russian Communism (at one point calling its adherents members of the “cult of Russia”), he predicts that either we would be living in an uniformly fascist or socialist world.

Wrapping Up

The Road to Wigan Pier is an interesting book, and certainly a lighter read than Ordinary Men, the last book that I read, but its first part is certainly much more interesting than its second part.

While Orwell is a fantastic writer, I don’t believe that the same can be said for him as a political theorist. While he is sensible enough to deride trite and hollow arguments, he fails to advance anything of meaningful depth and coherence of his own behalf, at least according to my perceptions of his arguments.

Reflections on The Road to Wigan Pier (Part 1)

George Orwell was probably one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, and he had some great insights that make him an invaluable resource to the modern reader. However, despite the fame of his 1984, many people would be hard-pressed to mention anything else that he wrote, maybe discussing Burmese Days or some of his essays.

Outside of those works, however, The Road to Wigan Pier is one of his better known works, and probably his best known full-length nonfiction work. I’ve been listening to an audiobook (affiliate link) of it on my daily commute, though I’ve also read parts of it in digital format, and I’m about half-way through the book now.

Timelessness

I think that George Orwell’s prose has a particular timelessness to it, and not just because of the subject matter. He’s well known for his fiction writing because of the quality of his work, and there’s a certain tone to it that’s hard to emulate and easy to love.

The matter-of-factness of Orwell’s style could perhaps best be compared to other contemporaries; I think of Chesterton’s Heretics (affiliate link; free ebook), though I am sure that Orwell would be offended by the comparison. He combines stereotypically dry, but personal, British writing with lucid and detailed descriptions of the scenes that he found in English mining towns to great effect. The prose reads like a conversation with a distinguished professor who is also an expert lecturer: formal, but never boring.

The first part of the book details almost exclusively the conditions in the mining towns (and, occasionally, other industrial and lower-class areas) in Britain. While it makes little effort to cater to a non-British audience (it was written for Britons by a Briton, and if you don’t have some passing familiarity of where things fall in England you’ll miss some minor elements), it’s still very understandable and clear.

One exception to this is found in the intolerable pre-decimal English currency, but from what I’ve heard about it having an explanation will not make the shilling and the tuppence comprehensible to anyone who hasn’t lived through them.

One place where the timelessness of Orwell’s study can be seen comes in the notions that Orwell has about the lifestyle of the impoverished. He decries the cheap–barely nutritious–processed food, the cheap luxuries, and the intolerable rents that his subjects face, and the daily wage work that they do with little recourse for injury or protection against job loss.

Orwell’s musings echo to this day in the statements that we often hear about our own society. I don’t agree with Orwell’s politics on all counts, but I have to say that I appreciate his honesty and the earnest presentation of his beliefs, and the rationale he gives for them.

In this sense, Orwell’s work is timeless.

Tremendous Detail

Another place where Orwell’s writing shines is in the tremendous detail of the scenes and personages he portrays.

If you ever needed proof that Orwell is a masterful writer, the first full chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier–in which he describes the various inhabitants of a house that he rented a room in and the house itself–is a perfect example of how to give enough detail to create a near-perfect mental image: I suffer from partial aphantasia and even I’m able to get some picture of what Orwell describes.

It’s also clear that Orwell has a genuine interest in his subjects. He describes people in a way that personalizes them, scenes in a way that project both details and emotion, and events in a way that provides nuanced context.

I’d compare it to John Hersey’s Hiroshima (affiliate link),

Critiques

There are places that Orwell’s writing doesn’t hold up so well. He is, by his own admission, judgmental, and honestly Orwell can be a bit of a jerk. Unfortunately, he wavers between being sardonic enough to make this humorous, and just plain rude. His attacks first against effeminate poets (it’s not entirely clear whether he detests the literary elite or homosexuals, or perhaps some conflation of the two) and later against temperate religious devotees, cement the notion that one feels he would be attacked by both sides if he were to make the same comments in the current day.

In addition, Orwell enjoys over-explaining to the reader. While his prose is good enough that it carries well, he has a tendency to give five or six times as many examples as would be required, then go into further detail, as if he expects his every statement to be scrutinized.

Of course, this could be a consequence of the fact that his work would be scrutinized, but in a day and age where Orwell’s work is sacrosanct, he does not need to build up his work to survive cross-examination. Sometimes the examples are good and varied, in other places they are tedious.

Closing Thoughts

I’m looking forward to finishing The Road to Wigan Pier because it’s quite good. It’s a compelling listen or read, whichever format I’m going through it in, though it can be fairly heavy.

The first part of the book is primarily journalistic in nature (or, now, historical), but apparently Orwell makes some political and philosophical arguments near the end

I strongly recommend it.

Reflection on Ordinary Men: Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

I have a tendency to read books which make me deeply uncomfortable with the world. I’m not sure what impulse drives me to this, but Ordinary Men (affiliate link) is one of these books.

It would be both fair and unfair to call my thoughts on this book a review. I am not qualified to critique the historical methods, factual accuracy, or mass appeal of such a book, but I can say that it is a compelling, necessary read, in the vein of Solzhenitsyn’s work.

Continue reading “Reflection on Ordinary Men: Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland”

Learning from Barbara Bush

This past week, First Lady Barbara Bush passed away. Her passing has left a major impact on the news cycle, but also in the hearts and minds of many Americans and even people overseas who have come to realize what a legacy one woman had on the nation and the world.

I’m not someone who writes about politics very often. I’m pretty apolitical, at least in public, so I don’t want this to stand as a striking endorsement or condemnation of any policy. In any case, I have no living memory of the Bush (senior) Administration. What I am writing about is based strictly on my reflections on the accounts of people who knew Barbara Bush during her life.

What I write is based on what I have heard her character described as, but the reports are so consistent and so broad that I have no doubt in their veracity.

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Enjoying Writing

Yesterday I talked a little about writing as a Stoic, which is all about self-discipline and making choices because they’re what you should do to become your ideal writer.

Today I’m going to talk about how to kick back as a writer and really enjoy it (or at least the things that help me destress, relax, and create a “contented plan” for the future when I am writing).

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