Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Candles of Life

Benjamin Shiff's painting Life on the cover of The Cycle of Life

A primary tenet of my perspective on the journey through life, as I describe in my book The Cycle of Life, pertains to the confluence of fate and destiny, and how conscious choice and the unexpected turns of the tide flow together. How do predetermined fate and individual destiny cohabit in one’s life, how does fate determine one’s prospects, and in what ways can the individual determine the course of his or her possibilities? Everything is foreseen, and everything is laid bare, yet everything is in accordance with the will of man, says the Talmud. Likewise, as Jung observed, something that remains unconscious in the individual psyche, may become manifest as external fate. Sometimes, what has powerfully constellated in one’s psyche, yet remains below the level of consciousness, may materialize in physical reality.

Little did I anticipate that this would become apparent in my search for a cover image, the face of the book. I traveled along rivers of time and traversed cultural continents, ending up, so it seemed, with a coverless book in my hands. Then, in a sudden bliss, I remembered a painter whose name was at the tip of my tongue. As I extracted his name, Benjamin Shiff, from the layers of my memory, I was reminded of the balance between lyric harmony and pensive concern, which characterized the dream-like painting I recalled.

As I traced the pictures on Shiff’s canvas, my eyes fell upon his painting Life (1990). Undoubtedly, I had found the grail. I understood that the frustrations of my journey had not been in vain, but were, perhaps, the psyche’s signs along the road to the picture of life’s transition. The candles’ soft light of life is poised against the painful inevitability of burning out. Yet, as long as they burn, there are shades and colors; there are the distinct faces of transient existence, and there are those of obscurity, hidden in distant nature; there is a lyrical melancholy, as well as a tense harmony. The pain of death and extinction reflects the subtle strength and beauty of life. Only an unlit candle will never burn out. A fully lived life extracts the awareness of its finality. Freud claimed, succinctly, that the ultimate aim of life is death. Mortality as the ultimate boundary of physical existence, serves as the container of human life.

In the paintings of Benjamin Shiff, the contrasts are subtle, and the opposites often blend into a tense yet congruent whole. Contrasting elements of identity, of earthly and heavenly, matter and spirit, float into each other, combining into one whole; together, yet distinct, united, yet separate - is this perhaps the human condition, as rendered in Shiff's exceptional self-portrait, 'my condition as a human'?

Sometimes the pain is hidden behind a crucified smile. What is crucial emerges from within outward appearance; conflict and struggle blend into harmony and tranquility. In one of his paintings, crucified love hovers over the wide-open mouth of anguish. Elsewhere, the light of innocence and naïve faith is contrasted with the complexity and fragmentation of knowledge.

In the aesthetics of Shiff’s paintings, light and hope merge with pensive sadness. The ordinary becomes thoughtful reflection, in which dream-like interiority finds tangible expression. There is always something hidden,secretive and elusive – a riddle, like a dream we do not understand, which calls us back, to search, to reflect and look ever deeper.

I came across Benjamin Shiff’s painting Life in May 2011, only to learn that he died in March. As it turned out, not only did we live but half an hour apart, but his daughter, Orit Yaar, is also a Jungian analyst. I knew Orit, but had no idea that she was Benjamin Shiff's daughter. With the sadness of having lost the possibility of meeting Benjamin Shiff, the “sad optimist,” in life, I hope that his painting Life, which provides The Cycle of Life with its face, will serve as a candle honoring and reflecting upon his life and work.

I wish to thank Shosh Shiff, who granted permission to feature this profound painting on the cover of The Cycle of Life.

The Cycle of Life will be released Sept. 1, 2011. It can be preordered at Amazon, or directly from Fisher King Press.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Banality of Obliteration – or, Coffee at Chlodna Street

I recently received a letter from an American acquaintance, perhaps I even dare say, a friend. He is a very good person, having devoted his life to care for the sick and poor, alleviating the suffering of many. Most of us would pride ourselves for a humanistic outlook on life such as his.

My friend inquires about the Middle East, and wonders, for instance, “what would happen if the United States took an isolationist's stance in the world?” And, interspersed among his questions, he asks me, “what do you think would happen in the Middle East if Israel was suddenly not there at all? Would the world be more or less stable? Would the Arab countries be able to unify and work together despite years of tribal, religious and political strife?”

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the road to paradise on earth is paved with much evil.

I am convinced that the most wonderful condition of peace, safety and tranquility would ensue, just as stated in the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization, chaired by Mahmoud Abbas) Charter:

“The elimination of Zionism in Palestine,” i.e., the destruction of Israel, which is the declared aim (article 15), “will provide the Holy Land with an atmosphere of safety and tranquility, which in turn will safeguard the country’s religious sanctuaries and guarantee freedom of worship and of visit to all, without discrimination of race, color, language, or religion. Accordingly, the people of Palestine look to all spiritual forces in the world for support” (article 16).

In the official Palestinian Authority daily, Judaism is described as a “distorted, corrupted, falsified religion,” “the Jews’ evil nature is drawn from Adam’s first son,” the State of Israel is a “malignant cancerous growth,” consequently, “the conflict between us [i.e., the Arabs] and the Jews is not a conflict between land and borders, but rather a conflict about faith and existence” (from Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, May 13 and June 3, 2011).

It seems that too many “spiritual forces in the world” are now willing to support the ethnic cleansing of the Jews. The ease, with which the elimination of Israel is discussed, so that possibly the world would become more stable, and so that peace and tranquility shall prevail, should ring the bells of alarm.

Requiem: A Tale of Exile & ReturnThis is my intention with the novella Requiem: A Tale of Exile and Return. I don’t predict Israel’s destruction, but I want to call the attention to these very trends, which do endanger our existence, perhaps no less than Ahmadinejad does. As long as “the spiritual forces in the world” welcome Ahmadinejad, who calls for wiping Israel off the map, at the United Nations, and don’t demand that the Palestinian Authority withdraw those articles in the PLO Charter that call for Israel’s destruction (and which appear on their page at the United Nations’ website), they collaborate in the possible ethnic cleansing of the Jews.

There are quasi-fascist elements in the present Israeli government, increasingly gaining influence, trying to enforce laws that endanger democracy. Netanyahu has chosen his government and coalition (he had different choices), and therefore carries responsibility. This endangers Israel from within, no less than all those who too easily play with Israel’s existence (besides this government’s lack of initiative toward peace and negotiations). There are intolerable fascist calls that can be heard from some of Israel’s extreme right-wing corners for transfer of the Arabs, i.e., ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. It would, likewise, be horrendous toying with the fantasy of the elimination of Jordan, or Finland, or any other nation, country or people.

But it is, as well, horrendous to believe the world would be better without the Jewish State of Israel, and play with that fantasy.

And it so happened that I received this letter, in which I am invited to contemplate Israel’s (i.e., my own) elimination, on my last day in Warsaw. I had just finished a seminar with a wonderful group of Polish Jungian therapists, which for me was a very special and meaningful experience. I had spent many hours of that last day wandering the extinct ghetto. I traced the process of its existence, from establishment till extermination. I superimposed the well-known pictures from the ghetto, and the process of events from inception, when people were shoveled in behind the walls, to Umschlagplatz, when the Jews were shoveled out for transportation, onto the streets of today. It meant reaching out toward the nearly unbearable, for instance tracing the location of the woman lying in the street, starved to death, in front of the entrance to 10 Walicow Street, photographed from within the doorway.

And that bridge, yes, the bridge that connects the two parts of the ghetto, across Chlodna Street, where life was as normal as it could be in Nazi-occupied Poland. I sat down to have coffee in the only remaining building at the crossroads, looking at the people who had crossed that bridge which is no more, and nor are they. There, I read Naomi Lowinsky’s outstanding book Adagio & Lamentation, in which she, with so much wisdom and thoughtful feeling, extracts the memories that too easily may be buried under the dust of denial.

The maps of 1940-3 and the present merge. The slow movement of a quickly passing day dissolve and blend with those fateful and horrendous hours and years. Hitler had done his best, not the least in Warsaw and in Poland, but did not succeed well enough (though he came pretty close), so we are still here to make much trouble for the world (by our mere existence), which otherwise might be such a wonderfully stable and peaceful world – just like having coffee at Chlodna Street, without a trace of the bridge.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Jerusalem: Human Ground, Archetypal Spirit

Photographs by Yoram Bouzaglou

Excerpts from Jerusalem: Human Ground, Archetypal Spirit, a chapter by Erel Shalit in Tom Singer's (Ed.) Psyche and the City: A Soul's Guide to the Modern Metropolis (pp. 279-298):

Unlike Rome, not all roads lead to Jerusalem, and those that do may all too easily lead the visitor astray in a labyrinth of divinity and madness. In the course of history, when Rome became the center of power, sanctity and glory, Jerusalem sank into spiritual ruin and peripheral oblivion. Thus, even those modern roads that bring you smoothly to the city may force the pilgrim to pass “through thorny hedges…” of his or her mind.

“Crouched among its hills,” Jerusalem is immersed with mythological, religious, and symbolic significance. Yet, scarce in natural resources, the surrounding land is cultivated rather than fertile by nature, and the so-called Jerusalem stone, the pale limestone that characterizes many of the city houses, nearly cracks and shatters by carrying the burden of Heavenly Jerusalem. In its often shabby garb, terrestrial Jerusalem seems to want to shake off its Celestial Glory, releasing itself from the task of being “the gateway to heaven.” At other times, when the light from above is reflected in her harsh stones, Jerusalem seems to embrace the presence of the Shekhinah, the earthly dwelling of the divine. Especially at dawn and at dusk, the reflection of the light may bring that which is below and that which is above, earth and heaven, reality and imagination into play with each other–marble-like clouds weighing heavily above, and stones that radiate light.

Poets have wandered the streets of Jerusalem, sung her praise and given her names. They have felt both the beating of her heart and the bleeding of her soul ... Drunk on her spirit, the poet’s soul has been filled both with blissful light and the dark pain of Jerusalem: “Jerusalem stone is the only stone that can feel pain. It has a network of nerves.” Thus, the poets have called her names such as early evening purple and awesome beauty, a wall of dreams and well of salvation, the sealed book and a bird of stone, holy fire, city and mother (metro-polis), den of jackals and cup of ruins.

The author Nikolai Gogol, having burned the two first versions of Dead Souls, believed a pilgrimage to Jerusalem would redeem his soul and relieve him from depression and writer’s block. He was shocked by the noise and confusion in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, discouraged by the scenery and the environs. “Not only were my prayers unable to rise up to heaven, I could not even tear them loose from my breast,” he wrote in despair to Tolstoy.

When Herman Melville visited Jerusalem a decade later in 1857, his harsh impression was of “stones to right and stones to left...stony tombs; stony hills & stony hearts.” He noticed dryly that there was “Too little to see and too much dust.”

Within the constricted geographical area of Jerusalem we have three mighty images of ascent, transition and transformation, wherein the footprints on the stony ground, the petroglyphs, are transformed into sacred imprints, the hieroglyphs of spirit and creed. The archetypal weight of three theistic Gods may be too much for an area the size of less than one square kilometer, one third of a square mile; again and again Heavenly Harmony turns into Earthly Strife.

Forthcoming September 21, 2011
The Cycle of Life: Themes and Tales of the Journey