A conversation between Phil Rockstroh and Kenn Orphan.
KO: Phil, I know you and I have talked about the psyche, especially in relation to western thought and its apparent anathema to anything non-reductionist. And I was wondering about your thoughts regarding apparent sectarian divides in the struggling left. The psyche, or soul, is regarded as a two dimensional shadow puppet these days. The sham consumerist trope of “mindfulness” is bandied about often in bourgeois circles as a way of numbing the soul to the deathscape of late capitalism. And I have found myself wandering in a desert of empty memes on the subject. Can you elaborate on what you are referring to when talking about the psychic need/dearth in western culture?
PR: First, dreams emanate from a unique, living sphere of being. The phenomenon is defined by its animated quality (withal, animated from the root word anima i.e., Latin for soul). Dreams arrive plangent with undiluted emotion (not empty motion — but meaningful, engaged and connected to the breathing moment e-motion). Unlike our alienated era, dreams are freighted in Dionysian drama and, unlike the prefab, ad hoc, shoddily constructed, soul-defying, Big Box store/Tyvek-choked, architecture of so much of the capitalist nadascape, dreams arrive imbued with a life-vivifying, deepening aesthetic.
Dreams break the bonds of time, space, gravity, perspective, law, and taboos thus allow one to move beyond egocentric, ossified, even cherished — and what are misapprehended as defining concepts of oneself and of the waking world.
But it is crucial to approach the imagistic limning of the psyche by means of the psyche’s own lexicon:
“[Our] dayworld style of thinking—literal realities, natural comparisons, contrary opposites, processional steps—[…] must be set aside in order to pursue the dream into its home territory. There thinking moves in images, resemblances, correspondences. To go in this direction, we must sever the link with the dayworld, foregoing all ideas that originate there—translation, reclamation, compensation. We must go over the bridge and let it fall behind us, and if it will not fall, then let it burn.” — James Hillman
Dreams can be viewed as practice sessions, as a form of rehearsal, thereby allowing one to move — in the manner dreams comport themselves — i.e., apprehending the world in an aesthetic sense — to wit, a mode of mind that evinces greater flexibility, is open to novelty, and is willing to engaged waking experience in a bolder, even rebellious fashion. All of which are crucial as we negotiate the life-negating, daylight criteria imposed by the capitalist epoch.
KO: Carl Jung believed dreams were the language of the subconscious, the part of our mind or psyche that guides our actions, feelings and ultimately our behaviour, but the reason they are so problematic to us is that they speak in a symbolic manner, a language we are unfamiliar with. I often think about that in relation to the culture of the West, a culture so driven by literal meanings and rational explanations that it eclipses the nuanced complexity of being.
Has this mania for concrete materialism caused our current alienation from nature? Is it where the West and indigenous cultures diverge?
I was wondering your thoughts on that, especially given our collective state in ecological and climate catastrophe, rampant militarism, the rise of fascism and a sort of new conformity of our times, or groupthink, especially in relation to social media.
PR: First a caveat: While Freud appropriated the term subconscious, Jung asserted the term unconscious served as a more apt description of the phenomenon. Jung averred that ego awareness, although the state of being subsumes the realm of the unconscious during daylight activities, the primary was not more powerful nor superior to the latter. In fact, the unconscious, in particular when denied a role in the life of both individuals and cultures, was prone to create havoc. Jung warned, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
In the view of James Hillman, ego consciousness is one of many constellations of fantasies within a psychical cosmos of fantasies.
Do you know this quote of Jung’s — perhaps his most famous? “The Gods have become diseases.” Full quote: “We think we can congratulate ourselves on having already reached such a pinnacle of clarity, imagining that we have left all these phantasmal gods far behind. But what we have left behind are only verbal specters, not the psychic facts that were responsible for the birth of the gods. We are still as much possessed today by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsessions, and so forth; in a word, neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.”
Dreams, the realm wherein the psyche displays herself in an unfiltered state thus is animated by the living lexicon of the soul, are image-rich, non-linear and polytheistic in nature. Therein, one is more likely to come upon Persephone in descent or Orpheus rising than the ossified logos of the true believers of Yahweh whose mythos places their unapproachable and fearsome sky-daddy as dwelling in the distant, unreachable blazing blue yonder.
“[W]hen the world is dead: ego psychology is inevitable, for the patient must find ways to connect the psyche of dream and feeling to the dead world so as to reanimate it.” –James Hillman, “The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World,” Spring Publications. Kindle Edition.
Hillman has averred, “the psyche upsets us” [by us he was referring to the US public]. Hence, he alluded to the reasons contemporary political movements are bereft of an effective means to resist the capitalist/consumer culture — a culture wherein the soul is avoided by means of manic flights from deepening engagement. In short, if the suffering of the exploited earth — plus how our lives are degraded in the same manner — was taken into account and into the suffering heart of individuals, an uprising would proceed in short order.
There is, for example, a toxic credulity at play within the mind’s of those who believe capitalists will solve the Climate Crisis — to wit, a crisis created by capitalism. Withal, capitalism exists and its modus operandi’s singular agenda is to sluice obscene amounts of capital into the already bloated coffers of planet eating ghouls (a sickness of Kronos/Saturn) who couldn’t give a rodent’s rectum about safeguarding your psyche and the earth’s biosphere from destruction from capitalism i.e., their craven selves.
The collective imagination of the US — or lack thereof — does not recognise the psyche, in fact, worse, are unaware of the existence of the phenomenon. The situation is disastrous for the psyche, because the psyche, with its uncanny, imagistic lexicon and its confounding multiplicity, is the means one views oneself and regards and reacts to the outer world. As a result, the US American mind lacks an understanding in regard to the ways their individual psyche is immersed in the currents of the collective unconscious of US empire and, as a result, are bereft of the agency to resist capitalist despotism and the ghoulish system’s gluttonous mania to feed off the body of the planet.
Capitalist operatives are adept at smothering anti-capitalist movements in their crib — when the movement’s denizens are toddling, swooning in magical thinking, through Candyland. A question: How deeply are activists willing to delve into the dark, wounded, unsavoury precincts of the soul? How else could one prepare oneself to wage an effective resistance?
KO: Phil, your quote from Jung, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate,” makes me think more deeply about the dreaming world we all too often compartmentalize into a sub-category of routine in the West. It has become another thing to control, dominate and suppress. Thus the arrival of more and more “sleep aids.” I think it is fascinating, for instance, that one of the most popular sleep aid today is Ambien, which is a sedative-hypnotic drug. So the impulse is both to be attracted to the unconscious and to suppress it.
So then it stands to reason that the deathscape of late capitalism we see stretching before us seems undaunted by our efforts to halt it. It is, as Jung stated, a thing we call fate. And this is, of course, supreme hubris because there is no fate involved here. It is all a sort of unconscious construction.
When I think of dreams I think about a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And I think this encapsulates the hubris I mentioned. Philosophies and theologies of all stripes have made vainglorious attempts to explain our world without an ounce of awe, wonder or humility. And this is what capitalism is all about. To dominate and consume as if all that exists, exists for the strongest human to control and manipulate, and eliminate via neglect to deliberate destruction, that which has been deemed to hold no value. The reduction of that can be consumed or that can amass dollar value via a barcode designation.
And so when I think about dreams I cannot help but think about ghosts. Ghosts have always figured large in my world. I think this is because I feel that they are the shadows of our psyche. They, like other archetypal figures, represent our lost aspirations both as individuals and as a species. In many indigenous societies it is the ghost who guides us toward emancipation and actualization, not the angel. This is because every one of us can identify with a ghost. Few of us have the piety or inherent detachment necessary to make us an angel. In mythology ghosts can never attain angelic or demonic status. They live outside the rhythm of life like dissonant chords, condemned to only remember loss. And it is in this very quality that we see ourselves reflected.
To those of us who live near to nature the idea of ghosts is far from fantasy. The concept is neither childish, nor macabre. We commune with our ghosts and respect them. They are the embodiment of our lost dreams and elusive joy, and only haunt those who misinterpret their messages. They have no malice, only longing.
PR: Kenn, do you remember this quote from Secretary of State Colin Powell, from around 2003, to a Saudi interviewer in the London-based publication Asharq Al-Awsat in which Powell declared? “They’re a wonderful medication-not medication. How would you call it? They’re called Ambien, which is very good. … Everybody here [i.e., in Washington’s political elite circles] uses Ambien.”
Yet from Aeschylus:
“And even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Dreams summon forth what has been buried for the sake of expedience and for the purpose of navigating the exigencies of the day without being engulfed by nighttime’s phantasms. True, Kenn, we, in the US, are in manic flight and down fistfuls of meds to avoid being confronted by realms of ghosts. Colin Powell, a key figure in covering up the My Lai massacre and whose prevaricating testimony was crucial insofar as constructing the web of lies that rationalised the invasion and occupation of Iraq, must be plagued by tormenting, Dickensian night spirits that make Scrooge’s chain-dragging shades seem like participants at a plush animal cosplay convention.
The American field of dreams is a mass grave of genocide-dispatched Indians, worked-to-death African slaves and labouring class Whites. The true national anthem is a dirge composed of imprecatory prayers of the starved and slaughtered. It should not be a mystery as to why US Americans are plagued by sleeplessness; why the citizenry refuses to ride the midnight train bound for all points into The Western Lands known as Death’s twin kingdom. After belief system buffeting encounters with the keening ghosts of the nation’s collective past, only a psychopath could continue justify cosigning the blood-built status quo. Withal, I suspect this is what underpins Trump’s late night Twitter-mania. Why, I suspect, his narcissism-brittle ego attempts to ward-off sleep and the perchance to dream.
KO: I was not aware of that quote by Colin Powell, but it is telling indeed. And it brings me back to the concept of ghosts in that regard. The ghosts of America’s global massacres still roam. They have no glorious tombs in which to repose, unlike the the craven cadavers who are endlessly lauded and celebrated in American media. No wreath clad monuments grace the dusty graves who were slaughtered and forgotten by these so called titans. The ones whose end was met in the killing fields of Honduras, and Guatemala, and Chile, and Panama, and Palestine, and Iraq, and Syria, and Yemen, and Somalia, and Laos, and Vietnam, and Indonesia, and beyond from a brutality paid for in full by the US taxpayer are rendered invisible. Yet their ghosts still haunt their killers. And a hypnotic trance-like sleep cannot save their souls from the justified rage of their victims.
And their descendants, those who slave at sweatshops in Bangladesh for multinational clothing corporations, or who pick pesticide-laden vegetables in fields in Central America for Big Agra, or are kept from leaping to their deaths in slave towers in China that furnish computer software giants their products, are living examples of the hypocrisy of the global economic and political arrangement that allowed for all of this carnage. How many other ghosts haunt this world besieged by capitalist barbarity? How many of a species not our own?
So Phil, my grief these days is for those forgotten. Those whose memory is deemed unimportant. But perhaps therein lies our path out. This is the narrative of the craven cadavers who use Ambien to numb their guilt besot souls in the darkness of night, and Aderall in the day to maintain a sort of manic madness. The ghosts have a story we should heed. We should be telling their story, singing it with unashamed fullness, as a rebuke and torch.
PR: Dreams teem with multiplicity; they limn the soul’s dark, absurd, tragic, unsavoury, transgressive aspects.
Dreams demand you acknowledge the living, mystery-resonant cosmology within you, in stark contrast to the Calvinist/Puritan insistence that what dwells within the individual is sinful and evil —while the shadow persona of Calvinist/Puritan imagination — a material reductionist worldview — reduces inner life to mechanistic functions and the world to dead, dreamless parts. The next step: The things of the world are deemed only fit for exploitation. And feral things — living things (even entire landscapes) that cannot be tamed or commodified are expendable or can be destroyed or killed outright.
Conversely, dreams — untamable phenomenon dispatched from ungovernable landscapes of the psyche — shake the foundations of waking life assumptions. Dreams do not respect the amiable tyrannies of the corporate era’s inviolable comfort zones. Even in the consulting room and, in particular, in the facile annals of pop psychology, a misguided approach reigns by which an attempt is made to tame the feral, ineffable imagery of dreams by over-interpretation.
One’s dreams are the Marx Brothers to the ego’s High Society’s swells, or Hitchcock’s birds to everyday, familial evils and accepted, societal corruption or David Cronenberg’s mind invading parasites. Or in a more contemporary tale in which movies arrive as collective, waking dreams: The character, Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who transforms into the Joker, could be viewed as a case of archetypal possession brought on by the dehumanizing elements of parental neglect and psychological and physical abuse, traumas mirrored in the dehumanizing, psychical violence inherent to capitalism. Envisage the name of “Fleck.” The name brings to mind a condition of insignificance, but also that Fleck’s human side is but a mere fleck buffeted by the raging winds of an unadulterated — thus untamable — archetype. And the phenomenon is mirrored by the clown mask donning mob possessed by what Carl Jung averred came to pass when the gods arrive as diseases thus as, “curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.”
Thus we should regard dream images, in particular disturbing ones, as being freighted with the potential to expand and deepen one’s ability to interact with the baffling nature of the world, or better yet to gain the wherewithal to endure and to disrupt the status quo of a soul-defying, earth-decimating order.
Yet dreams insist, we ourselves are diminished by pat, comforting explanations for the confounding criteria of the psyche: While it is true dreams deliver one to Olympian summits and across the chthonic currents of underworld rivers, over-interpretation of dreams can circumscribe one to the first person singular despotism of explaining what is unexplainable i.e., oneself. This is why, in the madhouse of the psyche, do not pace the sunlit dayroom but seek out the locked ward wherein are hidden from view the hopeless cases. What better approach can be appropriated for navigating the madness of the world?
Kenn Orphan is a writer, artist, antiwar and anti-capitalist activist, hospice social worker and radical nature lover living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He may be reached at kennorphan.com
*Title art piece is The Dream by Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, 1883
*First photograph is Everywhere and Nowhere, by Kenn Orphan
*Second piece is Saturn Devouring his Son, by Francisco Goya, 1819-1823
*Third piece is Ivan the Terrible and the Souls of his Victims, by Mikhail Clodt, 1870
*Fourth is a photograph of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam by American troops.