O Felix Culpa

Mantegna, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ

O Felix Culpa

That is indeed what men seek on earth:
‘Tis rust alone that gives the coin its worth!
– Thales, first ancient Greek philosopher

The very word pharmakon means ‘poison’ as well as ‘antidote’, and poison can in fact be both.
– C.G. Jung, ‘The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales’, in Four Archetypes, p. 105.

Those childhood traumas and crises, those early descents into darkness, the Fall from innocence many of us experience: childhood hospitalisations, parental loss or abuse, war, displacement, the list is endless. Yet may, one sometimes senses, all this not only be painfully productive and necessary, but – even more mysteriously – in fact ‘desired’, perhaps, at some unknown level of your being? And is this, in the end, both an exceedingly strange and yet more human perspective, as thirteenth century Sufi mystic and great poet Rumi avers? Rumi would contrast mono-causal blaming, as ‘Satan’s’ perspective, with ‘Adam’s’ attitude as one of self-responsibility for the central ‘Fall’ and all the ‘events of our lives’:

We look back and analyze the events
of our lives, but there is another way
of seeing, a backward-and-forward-at-once
vision, that is not rationally understandable.

Only God can understand it.
Satan made the excuse, You caused me to fall,
whereas Adam said to God, We did this
to ourselves.

Remember, for example, the sweet sad pleasures of childhood loneliness? This did not seem like adult self-pity, but rather something more like a thick grey knot of nothingness in the bowels standing watching the other children cavorting on the roundabout. Or was it in fact really just some form of making a self-pitying virtue out of some grim neurotic necessity? Or did some part of you that you seem to have lost touch with actually ‘decide’ to turn away, to ‘go into the dark alone’, as another (fifteenth century) Sufi poet Kabir would suggest:

I talk to my inner lover, and I say, why such rush?
We sense that there is some sort of spirit that loves birds and animals and the ants –
perhaps the same one who gave a radiance to you in your mother’s womb.
The truth is you turned away yourself,
and decided to go into the dark alone.
Now you are tangled up in others, and have forgotten what you once knew,
and that’s why everything you do has some weird failure in it.

‘The truth is you turned away yourself/ and decided to go into the dark alone’. ‒ Is that perhaps ‘the truth’? Is it the apparent paradox of all this happening ‘to’ you AND you yourself somehow strangely ‘doing’ it at the same time? The mind boggles. Being oneself and someone else at the same time.

And who is this ‘you’ anyway? You were turned away and you chose to turn away? Is this what it all boils down to? Could this ‘you’ be both you and Kabir’s ‘some sort of spirit’? You were turned away and you turned away. Simultaneously passive and active. Yet when you come to think of it, no big deal really, no more paradoxical in the end than riding a bicycle, making love, doing Tai Chi, swimming, all active and passive at the same time…

Let’s briefly switch the language to that of 20th century existentialism. Could it be that one may be both ‘thrown’ (as a Heideggerian Geworfenheit) into the all-consuming darkness, the severing, loneliness and pain of childhood AND (as in the Sartrean ‘absurdist’ version of existentialism) simultaneously one may ‘throw’ oneself outwards and forwards, pro-ject (Latin proicere: throw forward/outwards) oneself by ‘deciding’, at some primal and now forgotten point, to go there alone?

Take birth, for example. According to the science, one is both passively buffeted and birthed and at the same time actively births oneself by giving one’s mother the hormonal signals to begin the contractions. Indeed, one also births this young woman into motherhood: coming, ready or not….! The foetus decides. To live and be lived, is this the way it is? We decide and are decided upon, we think and are thought? We contain both a ‘free will’ and a ‘destiny’ that somehow, mysteriously, ‘constellate’ together like star formations and planets? So is there thus both personal autonomy (‘free will’) and a state of interdependence (‘destiny’), of being ‘tangled up in others’? And are all these seeming antinomies, when verbalized, simply paradoxes of language and thought, but, when actually lived, beyond verbalization, quite simple experiential realities?

And what of childhood trauma and existential crisis in this context of going into the darkness alone, say as a lonely only child or a parentally abused one? Is it all mere victimhood, all mere darkness and despair? Australian rock singer/poet and melancholic romantic Nick Cave (in the context of talking about the devastating loss of his father in late adolescence) quotes poet W.H. Auden:

‘The so-called traumatic experience is not an accident, but the opportunity for which the child has been patiently waiting – had it not occurred, it would have found another – in order that its life become a serious matter.’

And Cave adds:

How beautiful the notion that we create our own personal catastrophes and that it is the creative forces within us that are instrumental in doing this. Here, our creative impulses lie in ambush at the side of our lives, ready to leap forth and kick holes in it – holes through which inspiration can rise. We each have our own need to create, and sorrow itself is a creative act.

For you do derive benefit from trauma, you do somehow, unconsciously, create yourself, your project, you pro-ject yourself forward and are projected into another self, you follow up on the destiny of one set of inherent potentials. So that ‘life become a serious matter’, so that sorrow itself may become ‘a creative act’. Artists, poets and some philosophers have always known this. No challenge, no response.

Many artists and creative people, often strongly ‘challenged’ in their early years by various traumas, are notorious for having seriously flawed ‘personalities’, but strong ‘characters’. Without shadows, there is just two-dimensional cardboard ‘personality’, social mask (per-sona) not ‘character’. And the shadows are also the unconscious with which every creative person must be in touch in order to create. The unconscious is ultimately undefinable, but it is always also the Trickster, the ‘fly in the ointment, the skeleton in the cupboard of perfection, the painful lie given to all idealistic pronouncements, the earthliness that clings to our human nature and sadly clouds the crystal clarity we long for.’ (C.G. Jung)

Thus the warp and woof of character is inherently like an Amish woven cloth: imperfect. Or like an old oak tree: twisted with experience, gnarled, lightning-struck, lower parts rotten with ants, harbouring myriads of other species. It is not sublime and perfect but it is whole and complete precisely because it contains the flawed and imperfect. It may rise to the clear sky but only while deeply rooted in the muck of reality and earthliness.

Thus, it would seem that ‘life calls not for perfection but for completeness; and for this the ‘thorn in the flesh’ is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent.’ Praise the thorns.

Or, praise the horns
of goats. (Those old devils).

The Ascent

Dusk, a country lane. Suddenly
There are goats.
Everywhere. Flooding in from fields,
Climbing down from trees,
Crawling out of ditches and drains.
Some float in on bits of fog.
Some seem to emerge from thin air.
White goats, black goats, brown goats,
Grey, dappled, large, small goats.

There is no way around them. No way
Through them. A solid sea of goats.
Nothing for it. The only way is over.
A small goat provides a step
To a larger. And it to a larger.
And, suddenly, it is an Ascent.
A climb up a stairway of goats
Stretching up into the descending mists.
Their backs flat, a fragrant warmth
Rises from around my ankles.
There is no sound
But the faint tinkling of bells
As I climb …

No horn or thorn, no ascent, it would seem. For as in nature, where good things sometimes flow from nasty things like lightning strikes or attacking invertebrates, it is also an experiential truism that they may flow from certain levels of stress and trauma in humans.

Why, to take a less usual horticultural analogy perhaps, does organic fruit taste better? Interestingly, one reason could be that they are often more stressed by competing weeds and insects than the chemically protected ones. Stresses, however, trigger the plant’s own chemical defence mechanisms in the form of poly-phenols, flavonoids, volatile compounds and other anti-oxidants. When we eat the fruit we perceive these compounds as flavour; the greater the amount of these protective compounds, the greater the flavour.

How tasty may thus be the products of panic. Can human ‘character’ perhaps also be seen not only as a neurotic defence mechanism but also as a kind of subtle ‘flavour’ made more interesting, more ‘flavoursome’ as it were, by the biological and human context of stresses and traumas it developed within? No traumas, no shadows, and no shadows, no character? Of course this is always also a matter of degree: too much stress and traumas and the character can be as irretrievably damaged or even obliterated as a fruit tree or any other system by a storm, fire or locust plague.

The metaphors of the Christian tradition have an exclamatory phrase for such inherent paradoxes of life and living: O felix culpa, O Happy Sin, O Happy Fall! The Bible is clear: no Adam and Eve, no Jesus. No Temptation, no Fall and no Fall, no Redemption for all of humanity. Not only the weakness of Adam and Eve, but also the wiliness, rebellion and betrayal of Satan and Judas: all these ‘evils’ are also, mysteriously, necessary for the redemption of the whole.

Similarly, we get the same meaning in the pagan-Christian fusion of Easter’s spring time: no winter, no spring, no Passion, no Resurrection, no death, no re-birth. No loss, no recovery and no getting lost, no being found. No suffering and thorn in the side, no ascent. No fragmenting into many pieces, many selves, no integrating, no wholeness. As Yeats’ wise Crazy Jane most succinctly puts it to the clever Bishop:

For nothing can be sole or whole,
That has not been rent.

(‘Crazy Jane Talks With The Bishop’)

No rending, no mending. No sickness, no health. No shadow, no light. No emergency, no emergence. And no death, no birth. O felix culpa.

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on June 23, 2012.

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