It was the Best of Times; It was the Worst of Times
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
–Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Recently, I re-read this paragraph which was, as I recall the experience, forced on me in Highschool. It had meant little, or nothing to me at the time, except for the music that the rhythm of the words left in my ears, and a slight vibration to that music, that the music in words, always leaves in the heart. I am surprised to discover that the depth of meaning contained in these oppositions could, this many years later, offer me something so essential. Now, the words bring light to the dark corridor, I have recently entered. I had attributed this darkness simply, and one-sidedly, to the “Spirit of the Times,” giving no nod to its opposite, and its potentially broadening “Spirit of the Depths.”
Ali Smith, a Scottish author, states in her interview in the Paris Review, in the Spring of 2017:
What is the point of art, of any art, if it doesn’t let us see with a little bit of objectivity where we are?…I use the step-back motion that I learned from Dickens—the way that famous first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities creates a space by being its own opposite—to allow readers the space we need to see what space we’re in.
…We are living in a time when lies are sanctioned. We always lived in that time, but now the lies are publicly sanctioned. Something tribal has happen which means that nobody gives a damn whether somebody is lying or not because he is on my side…in the end will truth matter? Of course, truth will matter….But there is going to be a great deal of sacrifice on the way to getting truth to matter to us again.
Dickens tells us in fiction, the truth, that perhaps, at times, only fiction can offer. “Fiction tells you, by the making up of truth, what really is true.”(Smith, 2017) In this case, and, obviously, in many others, fiction offers entrance to a world that we may not have yet come to fully know from the travels and meanderings of our own psyche.
It is through fiction that we have an opportunity to occupy the realm of the opposites. Dickens’ prose creates for us the organic experience of occupying the coveted realm of possibility. Reading the beginning quote, has within it the inherent possibility of transporting us to a moment when the opposites can be experienced together, or at least in in the vicinity of one another.
For Jung, it is shadow, that stands at the gateway to this experience. Shadow’s presence leaves the door open to begin our acquaintance with the opposites. Jung, in describing the function of shadow, draws attention to shadow’s subtle, and unconscious exclusionary process, and suggests that it requires a depth of moral fortitude and integrity to be willing to tolerate the dissonance that the presence of shadow creates.
How much can we learn from the phrase: “It the worst of times,” when we have the courage to add, it’s shadow opposite, “it is the best of times” to it; and when we add to “we had everything before us, the phrase, “we had nothing before us”? For me, expanding my psychic realm like this, creates a sympathy for noticing things at the margins. I have learned from life, that extraordinary things happen at the edges. Jungian theory requests that we hover there, gaining perspective and regaining a lingering sense of the possibility offered to us at the edge of things.
Many of us have grown up in the margins of the realm created by our mothers, challenged by the world of our fathers; the realm of the nationality of one parent, transformed by the nationality of the other; the realm of our home life, augmented and changed by our school life; our private internal life, augmented by the outside world in which we live; our lived life, transformed by the life brought to us by our reading, and the multiplicity of our education.
Collectively, has also been enlarged for me in my lifetime. My sense of “White” has been augmented and transformed by my changing sense of “Black”; the meaning of “Nationalism” has changed by the foul history of “nationalisms.” On my first trip to Europe my sense of being an American, was shattered (and enlarged) by the French seeing my country as inhabiting only part of the vast continent of North American. Also, the word “colonies” that I learned all about in history has been profoundly transformed by my understanding of the word, “colonization.”
I have learned from all of this that opposites do not exist easily and cooperatively, and naturally in consciousness. One side of the equation seems to live in the darkness to allow us to exist peacefully in the realm of the “oneness” of the other side, and it’s consequential, one-sidedness. It is only when we are able to hold these oppositions as neighbors that we realize how much is hidden from us, how much has been lost.
I know from all this, that transformational things happen on the edges, that the numinous and the mysterious happens on the edges. Great art, fiction, and our dreams informs us again, and again that much that seems impossible, is possible at the edges. It is where the opposites meet, where margins can be celebrated and where anything is possible.
However, there is a great deal of sacrifice on the way to getting the margins of things to seriously matter to us again. It always involves allowing ourselves to be seriously and utterly disturbed.
Joan Golden-Alexis, Ph.D. is a Jungian Analyst and psychologist in New York City. Her practice consists of individuals as well as couples. drjoangolden@gmail
Begley, A. “The Art of Fiction, No. 236,” Paris Review, Issue 221, Summer.