Sunday, June 5, 2016

Brooks and the Ukpöñ: When you're Jung at heart

Leopard at the Avalon Zoo, Rizal, Philippines. Photo by Husayn.

There Is a Part of Each of Our Souls
a poem
by David Brooks
There is a part of each of our souls
that is like a reclusive leopard.a
This is the part that doesn’t care
about money or status or Facebookb
or any of The Everyday Things.c

The leopard is the part of us that feeds
off transcendenced, that seeks an awareness
of one’s place in the cosmic order,
a feeling of connection to unconditional
love, truth, justice, beautye and homef.
For long periods the leopard is up in the forest
high in the mountainsg. You may forget about him
for long stretchesh. But from time to time out of
the corner of your eye, you glimpse the leopard,
just off in the distance, trailing you through the tree trunks.i

There are spare moments when you vaguely or even urgentlyj
feel his presence. This can happen
agonizingly, in the middle of one of those
sleepless nights, when your thoughts come,
as Christian Wiman puts it, like a drawer full of knives.k

The leopard can visit during one of those fantastic moments
with friends or family—when you look out at the laughing
faces and you are overwhelmed by gratitude—
when you feel called to be worthy
of such undeservedl happiness, joy and grace.

The leopard can come during moments of
suffering, when you are forced to peer
into the deepest cavitiesm of your self and you want to know
how you can connect this moment of
suffering to a larger story of redemption.

And then there are moments, inevitable
in every life, but maybe more toward
middle or old age, when the leopard comes
out of the hills and he just sits there
in the middle of your door frame.

He stares at you, inescapably, eye to eye and face to face,
implacable and unmoving. He demands your justification.
What is your purpose? What is your mission?
For what did you come? There are no excuses
at that moment. Everybody has to throw off the mask.n
Text extracted from Brooks's Commencement Address, "Navigating Exciting Possibilities", presented at the University of Pennsylvania, May 24.

Explanatory Notes

reclusive leopard: A reference to the concept of the ukpöñ or "bush soul" among the Efik people of Calabar in southern coastal Nigeria who traditionally believed that everyone has four souls, of which one is external, residing in the body of a wild animal, not necessarily a leopard—it could be a hippopotamus, a wild pig, a turtle, or whatever—but leopards seem to be the most popular examples, in the anthropological and also psychological literature. C.G. Jung used the idea to represent the archaic and primitive ground of the psyche, from which modern humans have been violently separated in the course of our ascent toward light and emancipation, and which we must recover if we are to achieve, in the expression of Dorothee Soelle,
a feeling of being one with all that lives, an immersion or diving into a hitherto unknown whole, a cessation of the ego’s dominion and a simultaneous discovery of the real self, amazement, and an intense sense of joy.
For Brooks, everybody gets a leopard, or at least everybody who is anybody.

money or status or Facebook: This odd-looking trinity of categories of what we care about makes more sense if you think of it as evoking the psychoanalytic analogue to the three "internal souls" of Efik belief: id, ego, superego. Caring about money is concern with the satisfaction of one's animal desires; status is for the assertion of the autonomous self; and Facebook the fraught mediation, measured in "likes", between the self and the wider community.

The Everyday Things: A short-lived reformulation of the 1990s Atlanta band Hippycrickets, which released a single album, in 2005, Lighten Up, Francis, with the very catchy single "She Likes It Like That".

feed off transcendence: Obviously actual leopards feed mostly off smaller mammals, pouncing on them from a crouch position and breaking their necks with a single rapid bite. The concept of consuming transcendence seems more than a bit opaque.

an awareness of one’s place in the cosmic order, a feeling of connection to unconditional love, truth, justice, beauty: the definition of "transcendence", level 4 in the four-level theory of happiness presented in Brooks's address to the March 5 11th annual President's Breakfast at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, "an awareness of one’s place in the cosmic order, a feeling of love that goes beyond the physical realm, truth, justice, goodness and beauty". The previous three levels are material pleasure, ego, and "generativity" ("giving back to our communities"). Also at the Faith Angle Forum of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Miami South Beach, March 13-15, and Fresno State College on May 10.

The concept of transcendence as "knowing one's place in the cosmic order" could be derived from a 2004 essay by Christian Sheppard, "Walt Whitman's Mystic Deliria", though this would be odd in the sense that transcending is generally understood as involving leaving a place, not simply being aware of it; "crossing over", in Whitman's case, from real to Platonic ideal or the "good beyond being":
Rather than entertain the despair of being denied access to the transcendent, his “terrible doubt of appearances,” Whitman explicitly risks chaos with his mystic deliria. No longer despairing, but delirious, Whitman’s vision risks a different sort of madness than that inspired by Kant. Not the paranoia of a vertiginous skepticism, but the delusion of perfect faith—Whitman boasted that, in addition to having the “ultimate brain,” he also had “the greatest of faiths.” Emblematic of the madness Whitman risks with mystic deliria is the ultimate fate of his brain, dropped by a careless laboratory assistant, bursting its glass confines, and splattering into an immeasurable mess.
Or maybe Brooks just made it up.

It might be worth noting in this context that "generativity" goes back to the column of February 1 2010, where Brooks used it to refer just to the giving back of old people (that is, by accepting cuts in their Social Security and Medicare benefits).

Then again, Brooks's four-level theory of happiness bears a startling structural resemblance to the four levels of happiness described by Father Robert Spitzer in his Healing the Culture: A Commonsense Philosophy of Happiness, Freedom and the Life Issues (2000), of which a convenient diagram is found at the MagisGodWiki website:

Although in Father Spitzer's version "transcendence" is used to mean "transcendence", so it's different in that respect, and "generativity" is similarly replaced by a concept that makes sense.

f and home: And Brooks uses "home" instead of "being" in his inventory of the things transcendence makes you feel connect to; then again, Spitzer's elaborated discussion of the five transcendental desires does too: "five transcendent desires (which reveal five kinds of transcendent awareness): the desire for perfect and unconditional truth, love, justice/goodness, beauty, and home," in which "home" and "being" are treated as interchangeable, referencing Eliade: "the sacred is a source or cause of human striving to live in a spiritual and transcendent domain."

But David Brooks never references Father Spitzer, though he uses this material all over the place. Houston, we have a David Brooks Plagiarism Watch! (Not to mention he's turned Father Spitzer's elegantly composed deductive system into a senseless theological compost heap.)

g up in the forest high in the mountains: I don't mean to be hypercritical here, but to my mind if it's "high in the mountains" it's above the tree line.

h for long periods.... for long stretches: This repetition cunningly used to communicate the lengthiness of the time described in the brief stanza.

i through the tree trunks: So wait, you're in the forest too?

j vaguely or even urgently: "urgent" is, magically, a heightened form of "vague". Considering that leopard is supposed to be "reclusive", it's certainly been following you around a lot, hasn't it? What's it doing in your neighborhood instead of out in some sublime and faraway spot seeking transcendence? In Jungian theory, of course, it's not "the part of the soul that seeks transcendence" but the part whose catastrophic absence is the reason you, the whole person, are unable to achieve transcendence, the vital element you need. Brooks just got the whole story completely wrong, as usual.

k as Christian Wiman puts it, like a drawer full of knives: Sadly, no. Wiman is quoting the way George Herbert put it, and moreover quoting it accurately:
in fact I began this very essay between two and four one morning when “[m]y thoughts were all a case of knives,” to quote the 17th-century poet and priest George Herbert. 
Interestingly enough, Herbert alludes (in the fourth of his five "Affliction" poems, 1633) to a feeling of being stalked, not by his own bush-soul but by God:
BROKEN in pieces all asunder,
                Lord, hunt me not,
                A thing forgot,
Once a poor creature, now a wonder,
       A wonder tortured in the space
       Betwixt this world and that of grace.

My thoughts are all a case of knives,
                Wounding my heart
                With scattered smart ;
As wat'ring-pots give flowers their lives.
       Nothing their fury can control,
       While they do wound and prick my soul.
Brooks's revision of the phrase calls to mind a more genteel kind of insomnia, whose victim pads in pajamas to the kitchen and opens that drawer for an implement to cut himself a little slice of pie. If his thoughts were more like that drawer they'd be more trenchant than they are, heh-heh.

l undeserved: A clear autobiographical reference to an experience he actually had some years ago, as he described it in the Westmont College address, of a
sunny, summer evening when he had pulled up to his home in Maryland. He could see his three children, ages 12, 9 and 4, playing ball in the backyard. “They were laughing and tumbling all over each other and having the perfect time,” he said. “I was confronted with this tableau of family happiness. And I remember I just sat there in the driveway thinking I was filled with gratitude that I hadn’t earned. I just sat there looking through the windshield...
The idea that you have to earn your right to be grateful is also pretty peculiar, theologically and psychologically both. There's something awful and melancholy in this scene—his surprise at seeing the kids' joy, his unwillingness to get out of the car and let them know he was home—that I don't want to discuss, but you can think about it.

m deepest cavities: When was the last time that self of yours went to the dentist? Shouldn't you call for an appointment soon? I can't do much more of this....

Of course the self really does have "deep cavities" in the thinking of Carl Gustav Jung, where a person out in the social world is a Persona, a mask, or an outer shell, and if he fails in life to individuate his inner self in distinction to that outer presentation, the cavities will be inhabited by the Shadow of everything he doesn't want to be, crippling him: "If people are identical with the crust," Jung said in his 1928-30 seminar on dream analysis, "they can do nothing but live their autobiography, and there is nothing immortal about them; they become neurotic and the Devil gets at them."

But what is inside, in those cavities, is terrifying, of course; not just your personal Shadow, but the opposite-world of the collective unconscious as well, for a man the feminine Anima and for a woman the masculine Animus, and it's a hard and fearsome job bringing them all to consciousness and uniting them through the transcendent function. That bush-soul is following you around for a reason.

n throw off the mask: Amazingly, as Jung was explaining these ideas to the students in the dream seminar almost 90 years ago, that leopard wandered right into his story! Jung, making a metaphor out of his own lived experience in the East African savannah in 1925, solitary and feeling himself watched, by a pair of eyes:

Just like Brooks's leopard, peripherally seen in a nameless forest. That was the necessary element of Brooks's lost and perhaps fatally wounded soul, chasing after him everywhere, but he keeps running away!

This is so weird. David Brooks has in fact read some Jung recently, I'll bet you didn't know that and I cerainly didn't either, but Dr. Google found out, with a little difficulty (it must have been Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 1933 and always in print in English and loved by lit students), but his conscious reading was by the Persona, and it naturally only found the stuff Brooks already knows, or thinks he knows:
I just read a book from Carl Jung, of all people, who said that every single one of his middle-aged clients was mourning the loss of a religious sense and was searching for that religious sense.
Of course, how could he possibly have anything to say that Brooks doesn't already know, amirite?

But Brooks's unconscious mind, rigorously kept unconscious by his own Shadow-terror, has read a good deal, and played a deeply subversive part in the patchwork composition of this graduation speech for Penn, where he's trying to pass himself off as the creator of the whole thing, by not mentioning any of his sources, the plagiarized and utterly misunderstood fragments of Father Spitzer and Dr. Jung. The Shadow has understood it very well, and understood things that aren't even in the book, perhaps, and has crept out to take its vengeance for its long and painful captivity. Which is what makes it so astonishing, like a real, shattering poem in spite of the awful word choice and weary rhythm, opening up the results of a psychonalysis that the patient himself doesn't even know about! 

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