The doctor was exiting the door of my hospital room when he turned and said as casually as if he were a weatherman announcing an occluded front coming in, “We cannot rule out a brain tumor.”
I had collapsed after a tough PhD program with severe headaches and balance problems sending me to the emergency room. The doctor was wrong and his lack of a useful diagnosis sent me headlong into a free-fall through specialists.
After dark on a winter night, I was returning from one of these specialists who spent a few minutes talking about my demons before loading me up with Valium and Librium, the candy of the day. I was driving along Emmaus Avenue, which was named after the biblical Road to Emmaus, when I was tempted to cross the double line into the path of what turned out to be a long, languid brown Buick that never got wind of my intentions.
Bed-ridden, I did what any struggling poet would have done; I started writing on the white sheet with magic marker a poem that would become “Guilty on Each Charge,” part of my first collection, “That Kingdom Coming Business.” I was beginning to understand that I was still on that Road to Emmaus though it had potholes, misdirection signs and the occasional bandit eager for my wares.
I know that for some, poetry is a way into sentimentality. For me, it’s always been a way out. In this poem, I acknowledge that “I am no eagle who crosses highway lines at night to meet the coming rush. If dancing men with shovels could send me home depressed and whole without a sabre cut, I am safe from harm in Faraday’s cage which shakes the cocktail glass.”
Either the bedsheets ran out or my family staged an intervention. I had to conclude the poem in longhand on paper with lines that were commensurate with my condition. With order restored, I could reflect on my state of mind. I thought of the heads-up the deck officers gave us when our ship was passing under the Golden Gate Bridge because the word on the street was that Vietnam protestors planned to make a point by impaling themselves on our superstructure. This is what it means to be “at sea.”
“A dozen times I put to sea beneath the loveless gate. I heard no soul in foggy plunge grip the bayside call, only seabirds beyond the rail, quiet as the mist.”
Much of my PhD dealt with modern literature within a philosophical and psychological context. Twentieth century American poetry is a study in suicide: Randall Jarrell on the bumper; Sylvia Plath in the stove; Hart Crane out of money from the ship; John Berryman from the bridge. Berryman’s father rose with his gun early one morning, and went outside and did what was needed.
“Guilty on Each Charge” is dedicated to the younger Berryman, who jumped off a bridge in Minnesota when he was thirty. I conclude the poem:
“I am tired of arrogance and description. Let me love your clean descent. I have fished for you, laid you on the deck with sharks and given you the pigeon run. Let me love your clean descent. I would follow if I could.”
Psychologist James Hillman writes in his “Suicide and the Soul” about the centuries of religious and scientific taboos associated with taking one’s life. After all, the “law has found it criminal, religion calls it a sin, and society turns away from it” as anti-social aberration, placing the subject outside the collective. For the physician, suicide is an enemy to be defeated.
Hillman suggests that psychologists “will have to arise independently of these four fields because suicide shows this independence of the psyche from society, law, theology and even the life of the body. Suicide is such a threat to them not only because it pays no heed to the caution of their traditions and opposes their root metaphors, but largely because it asserts radically the independence of the soul.”
This is the modern dilemma. For centuries Christianity has wrestled with notions of soul, moving away from the Greek sense of psyche to something more spiritual and transcendent in keeping with its theology. This movement has been at the expense of archetypal psychology, which is soul-centered.
In his “Revisioning Psychology” Dr. Hillman defines soul as a perspective rather than a substance: “a viewpoint towards things rather than a thing itself. This perspective is reflective; it mediates events and makes differences between ourselves and everything that happens. Between us and events, between the doer and the deed, there is a reflective moment—and soul-making means differentiating this middle ground.”
For Hillman, this subject is a many-horned dilemma but he kept wrestling with it throughout his life: Soul refers to “that unknown component that makes meaning possible, turns events into experiences, is communicated in love, and has a religious concern.”
He wrestles some more: First, “Soul refers to the deepening of events into experiences; second, the significance soul make possible, whether in love or religious concern, derives from its special relationship with death. And third, by ‘soul’ I mean the imaginative possibilities in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image, and fantasy—that mode that recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical.”
Hillman, taking his cue from Carl Jung, works towards a psychology of soul through the psychology of image. I cannot fully describe my joy when reading “Revisioning Psychology” more than twenty years ago, a gift from my son. It is then I started keeping a dream journal that served as a useful container for my pathologies and provided a source for much of my poetry and fiction.
Hillman would revisit the issues surrounding suicide and the soul not long before his own death, tempering his earlier positions. He expressed greater appreciation for the Anima Mundi, the World Soul, asking, “If we do not give back to the soul of the world some of what it gives us, will it not wither from neglect, the world becoming more soulless, and our urge to commit suicide ever stronger?”
To free the soul we don’t have to literally leave the world to leave its worldliness. We don’t have to get rid of ourselves to get rid of an idea. We might have to free the soul from the confinement of our individualism and narcissism.
I write in “Guilty on Each Charge” about a young man who served in the Navy’s Seventh Fleet. “On a clear night under Venus he placed his head on an open hatch and closed the door himself. He was a brown stain on the bulwark.”