Monday, July 20, 2020

Essays and Archetypes

Two Essays on Analytical Psychology 

Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (Collected Works 7)

“To find out what is truly individual in ourselves, profound reflection is needed; and suddenly we realize how uncommonly difficult the discovery of individuality is.”   ― C.G. Jung

I was surprised to find much of the first part of this book, "On the Psychology of the Unconscious", to be a critique of Freud as much as an outline of Jung's position on the topic. Written and revised during World War I and subsequently revised, it is somewhat fragmented, yet still a good introduction to the topic. Part two is a further discussion of the relation of the ego to the unconscious including an introduction to individuation. The wealth of concepts is such that it is easy to lose track of the overall subject matter. My appreciation for the text was primarily concerned with the literary allusions and references to thinkers from Heraclitus to Nietzsche and beyond.

The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious 

The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Collected Works 9i)

“there is good reason for supposing that the archetypes are the unconscious images of the instincts themselves, in other words, that they are patterns of instinctual behaviour.”   ― C.G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

What kind of a book is this? I considered several categories from spiritual to supernatural, but decided that it was a sort of mythology of human archetypes and the psyche. My difficulties with the text came close to my experience reading the Tao of Lao-tse, while in its categorical nature it resembled The Varieties of Religious Experience. My own approach to reading it centered on the literary connections with which I found resonance in the text. These ranged widely from Shakespeare to Stevenson and Hesse with a special emphasis on the importance of Jung for Moby-Dick.

In this work Jung propounds many of his theories regarding the nature of human consciousness, both personal and collective. While portrayed as scientific they seemed to lack the evidence normally associated with the scientific method. Jung was great at making his assumptions sound like settled truth, when outside of his coterie there was little that was settled. For example, he compares his discoveries to the discovery of the atom, commenting that "we speak of "atoms" today because we have heard, directly or indirectly, of the atomic theory of Democritus. But where did Democritus, or whoever first spoke of minimal constitutive elements, hear of atoms? This notion had its origin in archetypal ideas, that is , in primordial images which were never reflections of physical events but are spontaneous products of the psychic factor." (p 57)  This gives you a flavor of the sort of arguments presented. There are also examples of many of the concepts based on observation of patients. For me, it was these stories that hearkened back to the approach of William James. 

The book is poetic at times and has a wealth of interpretations of psychic events. His examinations of the personal or collective unconscious is fascinating and provides a great introduction to the psychological world of Carl Jung.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday

The Top Ten Authors I’ve Read Most

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, bloggers are sharing the top ten authors they’ve read the most books by.  My list includes authors I have read over most of my many decades of reading with some on the list due to my youthful reading preferences while others are there because my interests have changed with age. All of these authors I would heartily recommend to anyone who enjoys reading. The reading numbers are from GoodReads.

1. William Shakespeare, 28 readings :  I have read and reread most of Shakespeare's plays over the more than five decades. His works are essential for understanding humanity and provide a reference point for understanding many more contemporary authors. 

2.  Plato, 26 readings:  Plato's Dialogues have provided me with intellectual stimulation for almost as long as Shakespeare. I read my first dialogue as a Freshman in college and have continued to read a reread Plato ever since.

3.  Leo Tolstoy, 18 readings:  While I did not read War and Peace until I was almost forty years old, I have managed to reread it several times while reading almost all of Tolstoy's other novels, novellas, and short stories. 

4.  William Faulkner, 16 readings:  I struggled with The Sound and the Fury in high school as part of my outside reading, but persevered over several readings and in the meantime found Faulkner's prose style in all of his novels and short stories to be most felicitous.

5 . Iris Murdoch, 16 readings:  I encountered Iris Murdoch while I was in college and over the years have read most of her novels and also her philosophical writings. The way she weaves philosophy and psychology into her novels appeals to me.

6. Charles Dickens, 15 readings:  My first Dickens novel was Oliver Twist which I read while at Summer Camp when I was twelve years old. Since then I have read  and reread all of his novels with delight, counting David Copperfield as my favorite.

7.  Henry James, 15 readings:  While I have not read all of his novels, I've read and sometimes reread most of the more important ones.

8.  Aristotle, 14 readings:  Again starting in college and continuing to this day I have read many of Aristotle's philosophic works. My favorite is the Nicomachean Ethics.

9.  A. E. Van Vogt, 14 readings:  This is evidence of my fascination with Science Fiction which peaked in my teen years, but has continued, albeit at a slower pace, till today. Van Vogt's superheroes were some of my favorite SF characters.

10. Thomas Mann, 12 readings: I planned to read all the novels of Thomas Mann when I retired, having enjoyed those I had read before then. I reached my goal a couple of years ago when I finally read Doktor Faustus, while Death in Venice remains my favorite.

Special Mentions (Authors who came close to making this list): Joseph Conrad, Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, H. G. Wells, and Virginia Woolf.

God in the Clouds

Son of the Morning Star: 
General Custer and the 
Battle of the Little Bighorn 

Son of the Morning Star: General Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

“Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor’d mind Sees God in clouds … Custer,”   

Evan S. Connell, Son of the Morning Star: Custer and The Little Bighorn

Once in a while you find a book that is so well written that beyond the days of reading, long after you have finished it, the book continues to haunt you. Son of the Morning Star is one of those books. The beauty of Evan S. Connell's prose and the excellence of his history make this book a minor masterpiece. Perhaps the larger-than-life presence of the central character, who the Indians named "son of the morning star", General George Armstrong Custer, is partly the reason for the magnificence of the book.

“Even now,” Evan Connell writes in his book, “after a hundred years, his name alone will start an argument. More significant men of his time can be discussed without passion because they are inextricably woven into a tapestry of the past, but this hotspur refuses to die. He stands forever on that dusty Montana slope.”

His vigor and gallantry were never denied, even by his detractors, and during the Civil War he advanced rapidly; perhaps due to fortuitous notice, but nonetheless he was a brigadier at twenty-three, the youngest American ever to win a star. All of this was not due to merit, all though he did have that, but in spite of his mediocrity evidenced earlier by his poor record at West Point, having graduated last in his class. Overall, as Custer made his career in the Indian territories, it always seemed that he was overrated by others and, most of all, by himself.

Who knows the mind of Custer and the reasons that led to his demise at Little Big Horn. Maybe Evan S. Connell hits on the right one by thinking the most simply: Custer had never known defeat, perhaps couldn’t see it even when it was only one hilltop away. Few non-academic histories have been so well-written as this and have such compelling central themes that you can't put them down. Near-masterpiece is the best thing I can say when recommending this to anyone who enjoys reading a great book. It was simply a delight to read.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Battling the Devil

The Devil All the Time 

The Devil All the Time

“Unless he had whiskey running through his veins, Willard came to the clearing every morning and evening to talk to God. Arvin didn't know which was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seemed that his father had fought the Devil all the time.”   ― Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time

This is not a novel that I would recommend to everyone. That is not because this is a bad novel, for it is indeed a very good one; rather I hesitate in my recommendation because there are no truly good characters in this book, in fact the are several very bad ones. The best you can say about the central protagonist, Arvin Russell, is that his violent tendencies are reserved for some of the worst of the lot.

So what is there to recommend about this novel? The author has captured realistically a slice of America's underside and portrayed it very well with strong characterizations and a believable, if not somewhat improbable and very violent, plot.

Set in Ohio and West Virginia in the years following World War II, it tells the stories of various desperate characters, including a veteran suffering from PTSD, a pair of husband-and-wife serial killers, and both a preacher and sheriff who are corrupt.

The protagonist, Arvin, is presented in a prologue as a young boy. He sits in a clearing with his father, Willard, on an oak log, joining him in his evening prayer routine. Willard is borderline obsessive when it comes to prayer and expects the same from his son. While Arvin prays, however, his mind wanders and feelings of isolation bubble to the surface. He feels like an outsider at school, he is the victim of relentless bullying. Arvin recalls his father telling him to stand up for himself, but this is easier said than done.

Willard recalls the horrifying things he saw and did during the war. One memory haunts him in particular: that of a soldier he comes across who has been skinned and crucified. Willard shoots the man as an act of mercy, putting an end to his suffering. Upon his return home he had married a young woman named Charlotte Willoughby and together they have a son whom they name Arvin. As the years pass, Willard becomes obsessed with prayer. The obsession only deepens when Charlotte contracts cancer. Willard’s rituals become progressively more bizarre and upsetting, culminating in animal and even human sacrifice. Willard believes these acts of devotion are necessary to save his wife. Nevertheless, in the end, Charlotte still dies, prompting Willard to commit suicide. Traumatized by his parents’ deaths and his father’s behavior, Arvin moves in with his grandmother, Emma. There, he meets Lenora, an orphan girl whom Emma takes in after her mother, Helen, is killed, most likely by a traveling preacher named Roy who is also Lenora’s father.

The narrator moves on to tell of Carl and Sandy Henderson, a pair of murderous lowlifes who entertain themselves by picking up male hitchhikers and killing them. Their reign of terror is allowed to persist in part because Sandy’s brother, Sheriff Bodecker, is corrupt and incompetent. An unemployed photographer, Carl takes pictures of his victims, calling them models.
In the meantime Arvin and Lenora grow up and become very close. When Lenora is bullied at school, Arvin comes to her defense, fighting the bullies, but also demonstrating a violent side that will follow him throughout his life. In addition to further exploits of Carl and Sandy's we are told more about Roy, the traveling preacher who killed Lenora’s mother. Roy lives with his physically disabled cousin, Theodore. After moving on from the Coal Creek Church of the Holy Ghost Sanctified, Roy is replaced by a new preacher, Pastor Teagardin, who lives with his much younger wife, Cynthia. Lenora believes Teagardin to be an exceptionally holy man, but Arvin has his doubts. These suspicions are validated when the reader learns of Teagardin’s seduction and sexual corruption of Cynthia. Teagardin then successfully seduces Lenora, getting the young girl pregnant. Furious, Arvin shoots Teagardin dead and flees Coal Creek.

These dreary yet interesting plot lines come together in the last part of the book. While there is no hero magically appearing on a white horse each of the characters reach an end that is fitting, considering the lives they have lived. Throughout the novel the author builds the suspense so that you are propelled forward in spite of the violence. That aspect, the realism of the story, and the insight into the demented psychology of each of the characters made this a very good novel which I would recommend, especially to fans of Cormac McCarthy or Flannery O'Connor.