Virginia Woolf said that there is a spot the size of a shilling on the back of one’s head, which one can never see for oneself. At present, I am wondering, if we have lost the essential energy to find a way to see that spot, or to get the help needed to see it. Perhaps, in these disruptive and unsettling times, it has become necessary to keep that spot unassailable. It is certainly possible that at this moment, the place that lies in the shadows at the edge of our personal and collective unconscious may remain in the dark due to a failure of nerve.
Without a doubt our nerves are frayed by the demands of the “Spirit of the Times” and the attempts of one tribe or another (even if it is our tribe) to intrusively define reality. This is particularly disheartening and disorienting when the proclamations of intention or of “truth” are profoundly, obviously, and compulsively unanchored to any moral compass. We are confronted daily with our too willing participation in the sins of society against humanity. The most horrendous of these is slavery, (racism of any kind) and for us, the sin is not experiencing this crime in the profoundly disorganizing, and reorganizing fashion necessary to fully understand our complicity in it, and what we have lost of our humanity as a result.
In our attempts to bring meaning to our current circumstances, a disconcerting symptom (or consequence) has emerged: this is settling for clichés and abstractions which are devoid of subtle affect and nuance. As a result, we are tossed between compelling and seductive spins on reality. “Cliché” is after all, “the thing we all try to escape,” in our life and in our work. The offense, of losing hold of the struggle, and succumbing to cliché, however, according to James Wood, “is not merely aesthetic or musical: it is epistemological—cliché blocks our apprehension of reality. In place of singularity, it substitutes commonality; in place of private oddity, it offers the shared obviousness,” and most importantly, for me, it intensifies a shared oblivion. (The New Yorker, 9/2020, p. 70). It appears there is much of value lost to psyche in this bland and often coy translation of external events, and our consequential unresponsiveness to what is most essential for us to understand.
It is most striking to me that as I try to place into words for myself and for my patients the collective, and political context in which we all live today, my words often “fail the novel, the specific just at this moment when it is most critical that they succeed. Is it too speculative to suggest a failure of…nerve here, (my nerve) as if the most burning material”… cannot be taken in, and metabolized, made translatable and enlarging? (Ibid, p.70) The moment is instead subtly soothed over, colored by the conventional gaze, which results in an innocuous abstract version of events. I begin to understand how dangerous it is, to be unwilling to pause, and to struggle to reconsider.
Such moments of disconnect (disassociation), momentarily slow the heartbeat for a few minutes, and then return us, like a good day of indulgences, to our original breathless state. Is the air less breathable, the fires on the west coast observably limiting the refreshing moment of a good deep breath? Or have I lost the ability to pause, to fully suffer the moment. I make excuses for myself as I am living in this time, and as easily defined by it as my friends and my patients. I make excuses for not continuing the unendurable struggle to keep informed of the powerful forces that threaten to define and hold my life captive, and above all to blind me to the captivity.
A moment, most striking in this context, occurred when working with a couple who are gratified at the success of their efforts at building a place of reflection in a marriage, a relationship that began with outrageous and unmonitored reactivity to one another. This place of reactivity has, surprisingly to them, been replaced by a place of informing compassion. This space has allowed them to build generative structures, both internally and externally in their marriage and their life.
Yet, they feel, magnetically held by a stultifying context. In fact, unable to discern this force with any objectivity they feel that they can muster only limited movement. They describe this movement in place as iterative, compulsive and annihilating of any perceived movement at the surface. They acknowledge that we are living in a context, a collective moment that needs to be further understood. This knowledge appears to be an important first step towards an awareness of an inner force that profoundly limits their autonomy.
Linda, 83, forced to shelter in place, in solitude, has a dream. With her dream, the “Spirit of the Depths,” offers her a possibility that is both refreshing and informing. It is easy to overlook that the “Spirit of the Depths” not only relates to the personal psyche, but to what is unconscious that lies in the collective and cultural as well. She reveals her dream:
I was going to be in a play. The time for the play was practically upon us—I hadn’t seen the script, and then someone handed me the script. I immediately started reading it and studying it. My friend Charlie was also in the play, is in the same situation. And now reading his part. We are thinking we are going to memorize it because we are starting soon. I have got to do it because it needs to be done. …Something to do with this time, the times, the pandemic, something unusual has to be done—I have to do it.
It seems, these problematic times gives Linda a new access to her personal mandate. The “Spirit of the Depths,” has given her access to a part of herself that is very different from the persona and the ego. “Someone” handed her the script, that allows her ego to act in tandem with the shadow (animus), and allows the unlived aspects of her life to emerge. She experiences this with an urgency, and she seems to know intuitively that being handed the script demands her performance. She accepts the powerful and fated necessity of the mandate. She accepts that it is the time to act.
I have seen the mandate that has become accessible for Linda emerging in me, and in friends and patients. In these times it appears we either begin to manifest some openness to what we have not readily seen as fateful patterns in ourselves, or we sink into stultifying complacency. It appears that the play is thrust upon us, and this includes the implicit mandate, “I’ve got to do it because it needs to be done.”
Accessing this moment takes a bit of nerve, but when I witness the accessing of this in myself and others, it seems to flow through each of us with as much necessity as the river flows to the sea.
Joan Golden-Alexis, PHD is a clinical psychologist, a Jungian analyst, and couple and family therapist located in New York City. She is a senior training analyst at the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association, and Director of Training at the Philadelphia Association of Jungian Analysts. She writes on art, psyche, and the intersection of psychoanalysis and the political. firstname.lastname@example.org