Poetic Implications: Synchronicity and The Language of Meaning
A Personal Reflection by Sean Howard
Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Cape Breton University
A few months ago, I began work on a project I’ve been putting off for over a year: an account of my time in the clutches of what Jungian analysts call the ‘puer aeternus’ complex, or neurosis; an inflated sense of the self as a precious, creative but foredoomed ‘eternal youth,’ destroyed, to quote Jung’s colleague Marie-Louise von Franz, by a chronic “unadaptedness,” which “frequently results in early death“ if not shaken off by the sufferer’s mid-twenties — the age, incidentally, I told myself as a teenager that I (like two of my heroes, Shelley and Keats) would die. After struggling through a long, difficult section on the central dilemma confronted (and shirked) in the complex — ‘how to truly be yourself,’ or ‘how to not be someone else’ — I tried to relax with a novel — The Black Book, by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk — and read, almost immediately, the following:
For by now I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that none of us can ever hope to be ourselves: that the troubled old man standing in that long line, waiting for the bus — he too has ghosts living inside him, ghosts of the ‘real’ people he once longed to become. That rosy-cheeked mother who’s taken her children to the park on a winter’s morning to soak in some sunlight — she too has sacrificed herself, she too is a copy of some other mother. The melancholy men straggling out of movie theaters, the wretches I saw roaming along crowded avenues or fidgeting in noisy coffeehouses — they too are haunted day and night by the ghosts of the ‘true selves’ they longed to become.
The major recurring dream of my childhood — from the age of about five until my early teens — was of waking up, as a young man, alone in a high Tower: in a room, or cell, with no door. This ‘dream-me,’ I felt sure, was the pale, noble youth — the captive ‘prince’ — I was bound to become. The novel continued: “Yes, once upon a time there lived a prince who’d discovered that there was one question in life that mattered more than any other: to be or not to be oneself…“
As a shock went through me, I was reminded of the time, a few years ago, I was working in the Cape Breton University library. Or, rather, not working, but pacing the aisles, feeling (not untypically for me in libraries) suddenly depressed and panicky; at, I think, the sense of something — the only thing that matters — missing from all the millions of words around, and within, me. Without looking at the title, I pulled a book off the shelf; a volume of the Collected Letters of Sir Horace Walpole, the eighteenth century British politician — something I would never have dreamt of reading. Flipping it open, I went straight to this sentence: “I wanted you with me extremely; you would have liked what I have seen.” Who this ‘you’ was, I couldn’t say. As a summation of — and outlet for — my feelings, though, the phrase was perfect; I, certainly, could not have expressed myself so well!
In both these cases, the ‘meaningful coincidence’ occurred at a moment of psychic vulnerability, a wounded openness: a disturbed version of what Keats called, in a famous letter to his brothers, a “negative capability” to sense other presences, to be without being your customary, interposing self:
At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…
In an earlier letter, Keats argued that, quote, a “man should have the fine point of his soul taken off to become fit for this world.“ This ‘point’ is, I think, the ‘mature’, self-conscious ego; the developed negative, so to speak, of the uncapturable, unframeable Self. For Jung, the healthy ego is a ‘storm lantern,’ the ‘little light’ of awareness; a limited revelation of the far vaster world around, and within, us. Consciousness, that is, is useful as a mode of experiencing, not explaining, reality; just as, perhaps, Wittgenstein sees philosophy as a revelatory, rather than reductionist, mode of thought, modestly illuminative of mysteries that can’t be dispelled, simply said or thought away. For babies and young children — incapable of yet putting ‘too fine a point on things’ — experience is the only explanatory framework available; if something is marvelous, or terrible, that’s what it is: why or how (or whether it ‘really,’ positively, is) is beside the (blurred and diffused) point. And poetry is, on this reading, a state of relapse to this condition: at once the place you meet the world (without egotistic preconditions), the gesture you greet it with (the raising of the ‘storm lantern’) and the response you receive — the messages you have the ‘negative capability’ to record.
In his book Honoring the Medicine, Kenneth Cohen talks about the religious, and I’d say philosophical, significance for all Native American tribes of the ‘fontanel’, the “soft spot” or “membraneous space“ at the junction of the four parietal bones in the skulls of human infants. “The Great Spirit’s breath — the soul,” Cohen writes, is understood to enter “the body at birth through the fontanel” and leave “at death through this same point, now hardened. The Hopi believe that the fontanel, kópavi, is a vibratory center that communicates with the Creator. In the Lakota language, the fontanel is called pe’wiwila and peówiwila, ‘little springs on the top of the head,’ suggesting the sacred springs through which spiritual powers can enter or leave the earth.“
Keats, I believe, thought of poetry as — or, rather, felt it to be — a ‘soft spot’, an interface or opening, of this kind. Certainly, his idea of ‘negative capability’ resonates strongly with the ‘poetic ecology’ of Native American science: the decisive commitment of indigenous natural inquiry to the primacy of experience over explanation; the exploration of implications rather than the pursuit of explicit, definitive accounts. The ‘laboratory’ of Native science, to borrow a word coined by the Chickasaw scholar James (Sákéj) Youngblood Henderson, is the “langscape,” the place where words and world, things and thoughts — cosmos and microcosm — meet, the common ground of expression and experience. In his essay ‘Empowering Aboriginal Thought,’ Henderson explores the ‘langscape’ of the Míkmaq people, the juncture of no less than eight ‘realms’: the Deep Earth Lodge; the Root Lodge; the Water Lodge; the Earth Lodge; the Ghost Lodge; the Sky Lodge; the Light Lodge; and the Ancestors’ Lodge. Each of these levels is “interconnected” with, and transformable into, the others; all, in fact, are themselves lodged in the Sacred Realm, envisaged as a mandala or sphere — a circle, like the fontanel, open at the centre — which the Míkmaq claim not to understand but rather stand within. “These realms,” Henderson writes, “are not outside each other but are interactive,” and it is this “interaction” that is “important, rather than the different parts themselves.” “Thus,” he continues:
[T]he sacred space is considered as a transforming flux that constitutes an indivisible web of meanings. The Míkmaq can perceive the web, and occasionally they can experience reflections of the realms. The total order, described as an indivisible world, can best be understood in English as the implicate order. Traditionally, the Míkmaq have translated this order into the English words ‘the most’ or the ‘great mystery’ or the ‘great silence.‘
The term ‘implicate order’ was introduced by the American physicist David Bohm in his 1980 book Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Shortly before his death (in 1992), Bohm met Henderson and other Native thinkers and saw in both indigenous epistemology and languages a beautiful way of ‘capturing’ (or, rather, enacting) the creative relations between whole and part, form and flux, central to ‘his’ vision of the unity of nature; his “new notion of order” which he belatedly but happily realized had been appreciated by many peoples for many millennia.
Rather than — as in reductionism — a process of violent (and violatory) penetration, mental and experimental, into the ‘heart of matter,’ Bohmian physics, and Míkmaq metaphysics, celebrates the interpenetrability of different levels of being, or different aspects (explicit forms) of the same underlying reality (Jung’s transcendent, and thus unapprehendable, unus mundus). For Bohm -
space and time are no longer the dominant factors determining the relationships of dependence or independence of different elements. Rather, an entirely different sort of basic connection of elements is possible, from which our ordinary notions of space and time, along with those of separately existent material particles, are abstracted as forms derived from the deeper order. These ordinary notions in fact appear in what is called the explicate or unfolded order, which is a special and distinguished form contained within the general totality…
And for the Míkmaq (in Henderson’s account):
The realms of flux create a flowing, transforming existence. … [E]lders and thinkers relate each realm to the entire movement. They describe each realm only to understand the overall process of change. Energies or forces of the realms change with transformation. These transformations do not always cause physical changes; they often cause changes in the manifestation or behavior only of those who are aware of the subtle changes. If there is no change or renewal, then the energies or forces waste away.
Is it possible that synchronicities can be seen in this light as sudden, dramatic exceptions to the rule of “subtle changes” — as “transformations” which do “cause physical changes” as they become explicit, reveal the implications of the crisis shaking us loose from our customary, ‘positive’ selves? And, if this is plausible, might we not also view metaphors as synchronicities of a kind: momentary (mercurial) illuminations of the ‘secret’ connections, the intimate relations, between people and places, mind and matter, physics and psyche?
Sean Howard moved to Nova Scotia from England in 1999. His poetry has been published in Canadian journals including Geist, Other Voices, Quills, Prairie Journal, The Antigonish Review, The Nashwaak Review and Prairie Fire as well as zafusy (UK) and 4AM Poetry Review (USA). Sean holds a Ph.D in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford, UK, and is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University, pursuing research interests in nuclear disarmament and the philosophy of science. A recent paper — ‘Very Different Butterflies’: The Scope for Deep Complementarity Between Western and Native American Science’ — was published in ‘The Pari Dialogues: Essays in Science, Religion, Society and the Arts’ (Pari Publishing, 2007). To view some more of Sean’s poetry on-line, visit www.zafusy.org/poetry/seanhoward.
Copyright ©2008, by Sean Howard and Spinozablue. All Rights Reserved.
1. Marie-Louise von Franz, The Problem of the Puer Aeternus, Inner City Books, 2000, p. 7.↑
2. Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book, Trans. Maureen Freely, Faber and Faber, 2006, p. 204; originally published, 1990.↑
3. Letter to George and Thomas Keats (his brothers), December 21, 1817; quoted in Andrew Motion, Keats, Faber and Faber, 1998, p. 217.↑
4. Letter to J. H. Reynolds, November 22, 1817; Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, p. 430.↑
5. Oxford Canadian Dictionary.↑
6. Kenneth Cohen, Honoring the Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing, Ballantine Books, 2003, p. 51.↑
7. Henderson, op. cit., pp. 258 – 259.↑
8. David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Ark, 1983, p. xv.↑
9. Henderson, op. cit., p. 258.↑