Poetry: Couched in the Beyond

by Norm Ball

"the self is the modern substitute for the soul"-- Allan Bloom, from The Closing of the American Mind

A soul is a terrible thing to waste. First of all, it took a while for most of us to get one. In times past, souls were the exclusive province of Pharaohs while the rest of us rolled five-ton pyramid blocks up and down the Valley of Kings expiring, mid-heave, in puddles of sweat and Coptic invective. In fact, the Egyptians recognized nine separate souls, each one residing in a different part of the body. Thus it was not uncommon to find ones soul-mate right across the way in, say, the liver or the colon.

Through painstaking cross-cultural detective work reminiscent of Fraser’s The Golden Bough and Graves’ The White Goddess, Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank in his 1932 book Art and Artist details the evolutionary –and upward-- ‘migration’ of the soul from the many disparate regions of the body into a unified whole, in the head region. For Rank, the poet was the vanguard of this expedition, shepherding the soul upward through language.

But before we go any further, a few brief words about Rank; like many readers, I came to Rank by way of Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death. Written in full knowledge of his own impending death, Denial is Becker’s magnum opus. In the final chapter rhetorically titled ‘What is the Heroic Individual’ one imagines Becker writing to himself as though his life depended on it. Certainly his immortality did. This essay weaves the thoughts of both men somewhat interchangeably as Becker echoes Rank in so many instances.

Increasingly disillusioned with the limitations of psychoanalysis, Rank was an early defector from Freud’s inner circle, becoming a theologian-by-circuitous-route in a manner reminiscent of Einstein. Echoing Jung, though with a more judicious style, Rank declares there is "an articulation of the universe...opposed to our logical and scientific scheme of connecting that obeys a law of its own peculiar sort and cast."

Becker draws many parallels between Rank and Kierkegaard, suggesting at one point the latter’s notion of sin is virtually indistinguishable from Rank’s notion of neurosis. It’s fair to note many Freudians felt Rank went a little soft in the head, or was at least trying too hard to get into Anais Nin’s pants. But for my taste, Rank splits the difference neatly between Freud, indefatigable Man of Science, and Jung, Shaman-mystic. An ‘artist’s analyst’ both figuratively and literally (he counted Nin and Henry Miller among his patients), Rank’s books are breathtaking feats of erudition and insight. His veritable ‘etymology’ of the soul --and its implications for modern poets-- is a must-read for all tormented scribes in the present age.

Concurrent with the consolidating, migratory pattern of the soul-concept, Rank observes a ‘democratization’ movement, the terminus occurring within Christianity which doles out a soul to each of us, bestowing it for good measure with immortality—provided we repent. Prior to this, the Greek notion of soul was a rather bifurcated affair. There was the life force and then the spirit of the dead with the two perhaps exchanging a few terse words on the banks of the River Styx. But by and large, they kept to their own side of the river.

For those believing in an immortal soul –as opposed to mere artistic immortality through the authoring of enduring art—Rank has some Elysian swampland for sale. Even the Old and New Testaments are rather circumspect on the matter of immortality. Nonetheless the prospect of tormenting our loved ones in perpetuity with the same-ole dysfunctional claptrap is a remarkably enduring notion, as any New Age bookstore will attest.

Firmly convinced of the evolutionary pattern of soul-formation, Rank decried its dismantling at the hands of the Freudians, who, he felt, sought to scientifically reduce it to a series of sexual bumps-and-grinds. The Freudian agenda for the soul was clear. First relegate its superstitious elements to the dustbin of history. Then give what’s left a good ironing-out, reconciling the residue to that ‘hyper-self-conscious’ identity known as the ‘self’. This program could easily be called ‘death to poets, long live the narcissists.’ Poetically, it is wrong-headed. As Yeats instructs in Anima Hominis, it is not the self but the "other self, the anti-self or the antithetical self, as one may choose to name it…" that authors a poem. Art therefore becomes the triumph of 'otherness’ over the self. This otherness could just as easily be called the soul.

This is a zero-sum game: where the self is in ascendance, the soul is in retreat. Chiming in on the decline of art by an overweening self, George Steiner in Grammars of Creation, observes that "For much of its history, poiesis has been nameless…Our obsession with individual authorship…[is] a very late…reflex. [It] declares that dramatization of the ego of which renaissance and romanticism were the foremost, inwardly kindred, expressions." Indeed the modern celebrant of Shakespeare’s work is bedeviled by the historical vagueness of the man, almost as though a full-bodied enjoyment of Hamlet is impossible without some knowledge of the playwright’s personal life. The irony, Steiner points out, is that Shakespeare was "non-egotistical to a degree we find difficult to experience."

Striving against this overriding cult of personality (the secularized residue of Christianity's obsession with God-authored sacred texts), Michel Foucault argues for a literary discourse unencumbered by what he calls the author-function. The discovery "for example, that Pierre Dupont does not have blues eyes" should not materially affect this discourse. More interesting by far, suggests Foucault, is the "empty space left by the author's disappearance." Whether this acute biographic interest stems from prurience, or Philistine status-mongering, the modern reader seems almost bound to ask, as a condition of appreciation if not comprehension, 'who wrote that?' Has the literary self, the author, commandeered the text entirely? Can it be fairly said that who Oprah invites onto her show --that author's receptiveness to going 'beyond the text' with personal detail-- is at least as important as the book she recommends, the text-itself?

The relentless unearthing of the self is, in the end, an unfulfilling quest. As Becker notes ruefully, "when you narrow down the soul to the self…you have the individual man, and you are stuck with him." Rank argued that, far from a path to nirvana, relentless psychoanalyzing was a ‘negative and disintegrating ideology’, a slayer of mystery. Modern ‘psychological man’ desperately needed religion –or a substitute thereof— which had effectively ‘disguised and absorbed’ human neurosis since the beginning of civilization. Whereas Heidegger identified the present age as an interregnum, a time of great need between "the gods that have fled and the god that is coming" (in this same breach, Beckett waits interminably), Rank, like Nietzsche, deems all holy space --temples both present and future-- irrevocably destroyed. In this permanent god-vacuum, art must serve as the new religion.

For Rank, the poets enjoyed first order of importance, as he recognized the soul to be a linguistic invention, a creative act of language by the self. That is, by giving voice to the idea of soul, through the strange paradox of logos, the soul separates from the lips, the body, and is thus ‘made independent.’ The soul springs from poetry which springs from language.

Mark Strand could just as easily be speaking of the soul when he says in "Orpheus Alone":


…it came in a language

Untouched by pity, in lines, lavish and dark,

Where death is reborn and sent into the world as a gift,

So the future, with no voice of its own, nor hope

Of ever becoming more than it will be, might mourn.


Untouched by pity. The mythic record is replete with the inherent power of words; words that, once spoken, kill. The Jewish cabbalist Abraham Abulafia repeatedly warns against the careless uttering of sacred words by the uninitiated. Of course The Gospel of John offers the best Christian instance of logos although the verses are almost entirely Heraclitean in origin: "For wisdom, listen/not to me but to the Word/and know that all is one."

With the gods of revelation dead, the gods of imagination, the artists, are called upon to fill the void --provided of course they possess the creative vision to gaze beyond their navels. But first, a brief warning to the soldiers of imagination: whatever the deity, revelation’s demise at the hands of artists has been grossly exaggerated. Salman Rushdie’s novelistic ‘re-imagining’ of the Qu’ran –and his subsequent clashes with Islamic literalists—provides a vivid case study. Allah be praised, but not parodied.

As for the poets’ suitability to their renewed importance in a post-Christian age, Rank was not especially hopeful, finding modern artists perilously self-absorbed. In Rank’s view, artists given over to the eros/thanatos motives were for all practical purposes ‘dead’ to the love-expansion demanded by agape. In Becker’s scatological definition of man -- the ’angel that shits’-- sex/death, the petit mort, consumes the creaturely-half while love pre-occupies the creator-half. With both aspects doomed to share the same address, it falls to the artist to champion some semblance of reconciliation, if only for brief interludes of creative production. The Norton Anthology of Poetry expects no less of its immortalized few.

In Rank’s language, the artist ‘nominates’ himself to navigate these two conflicting impulses. Becker paraphrases Rank: "In the creative genius we see the need to combine the most intensive Eros of self-expression with the most complete Agape of self-surrender." An exhausting mandate perhaps, but the alternative is far worse: the loss of faith in any redeeming vision. Unlike Orpheus who inexpertly navigates the twin-poles of life and death, the well-balanced poet, admittedly an oxymoron in most cases, fears life and death in equal measure. Neither can be embraced. The result is a condition similar to madness. But don’t just take Rank’s word for it as history is rife with examples.

A passionate reconciler of disparate knowledge, Rank lamented a world in which there was "...already too much truth…an over-production which apparently cannot be consumed!" Again, Becker amplifies: "There has been so much brilliant writing…yet the world spins on its age-old demonic career." Indeed the world is choked with poets deaf to Rank’s higher calling. Consider the irreligious Philip Larkin moping about the English countryside. A frequenter of churches for their vaguely transcendent feel, Larkin is the portrait of solipsism and despair in this excerpt from "Church Going":

…back at the door

I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,

Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.


Yet stop I did; in fact I often do,

And always end much at a loss like this,

Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,

When churches fall completely out of use

What shall we turn them into…

Never mind that Eliot answered this question in Little Gidding: "Water and fire shall rot /The marred foundations we forgot/Of sanctuary and choir." But where’s the call of agape? Larkin was, at times, the prototypical modern day poet trapped within himself. At the extremes of his moroseness, we feel justified asking of him: is our world any richer for your Irish sixpence?

Just as Becker warned against "modern men…replac[ing] their souls with psychology", Rank saw the death-knell of art in the over-analyzed artist:

"Finally, there are artists, especially among the poets, for whom not only is this self-representation the essence of their work, but who are conscious to a very considerable extent of the process and have studied it ‘philosophically’…This process of the increasing extension of the consciousness in humanity, which psycho-analysis has fostered so enormously in the last decades –but not entirely to the advantage of mankind as a whole…[is] likely to be the beginning of the decay of art...[the] collapse of art through the increasing consciousness of the artist."

The best lack all convictions. Contemporary poets, beginning with Ginsberg, sought to elevate their neuroses into the sublime. Bukowski, a literary nadir, enshrined his self-loathing in primitive verse. In Adriano Shaplin’s brilliant new play, Pugilist Specialist, an exasperated Marine Colonel, tasked with assembling a covert squad of military hit-men, laments, "We’ve got a nation of teenage poets cultivating a rich crop of sensitivity. Where do I get my soldiers?" Re-instituting the draft might drain the MFA swamps where there’s bound to be a Wilfred Owen or two just waiting to happen. Robert Graves, trench-mate of Owen, once marveled at Eliot’s good fortune for not having to ‘slough off a war neurosis.’ Poetic sensibility is not the same as teenage sensitivity. As Becker points out, all that separates the neurotic from that true soldier, the artist (Kierkegaard’s knight of faith), is the courage for talent. The self-absorbed artist is simply verbose and boring.

Thus a rejoinder to the many bleeders out there: We, your fellow sufferers, don’t care to visit your pain unless you’ve cobbled it into some decent poetry. Otherwise we’re perfectly happy crying in our own beers, thank you very much. T.S. Eliot admired Ben Jonson for successfully incorporating ‘his erudition into his sensibility." Erudition absent sensitivity makes for sterile, academic poetry. However raw sensitivity unleavened by erudition leads to insipidly emotive prattle, the province of Becker’s neurotic no-talents.

So who’s responsible for all this woe-is-me-ism in modern journeymen poetics? Why do so many poets embark on the same dispirited journey, literally, poetry lamenting the loss of soul? Do mommy and daddy bear all the blame for Junior’s manifold discontents? Not at all, said Rank. Neurosis is a condition induced as much by cultural milieu as botched nurturance. At best, psychoanalysis offers a partial solution e.g. why we wash our hands a hundred times a day. At worst, it falsely promises answers to "…who [man] is, why he is here on earth, why he has to die…" i.e. why we feel so dirty.

The cultural dimension of neurosis has, in recent times, stolen the limelight from the traditional, Freudian catalog of personal hang-ups because we live in an age of collapsing stories, what Becker (echoing Rank) calls "the eclipse of secure communal ideologies of redemption." Like frying pan to fire, the confession booth has been swapped for the analyst couch. However a couch is merely a booth without walls. Both are furnishings constructed to lend comfort, the former to scientific creatureliness, the latter, as confessional, to religious creatureliness. Man, the creature, will always require his gods, whether a gray-bearded Yahweh or a gray-bearded Freud. Quoting Philip Rieff:

"Abstractions will never do. God-terms have to be exemplified…Men crave their principles incarnate in enactable characters, actual selective mediators between themselves and the polytheism of experience."

Perhaps that’s why we still need poets: to gather polytheistic experience into story, fashioning soul through words. Rank wrote: "a belief in the soul…is man’s first creative achievement." The narcissistic monologue, so typical of contemporary poetry, misses at least one-half of poetry's calling. Poets must summon the imaginative courage to reach both beyond (agape) and within (eros). Our culture, birthplace of the hard-won soul, asks no less.