Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Orpheus Myth, Part II

“To Look Back or Not to Look Back,” That is the Question:
Clinical Implications of Some Mythical Injunctions Against Looking Back
—Eric Moss, PhD, Clinical Psychologist 

In our prior paper, “The Therapist as Musician: Ferenczi and his Use of the Orpheus Myth: A Guide for the Contemporary Therapist” (Leib and Moss, 2013), we drew upon the mythical figure of Orpheus and his musical sensitivities as a model for the clinical stance of today’s therapist, as did the pioneer psychoanalyst, Sandor Ferenczi.

In this paper I will look at the last, more puzzling, part of the myth, in which Orpheus disobeys the gods’ injunction, looks back at Eurydice and thereby brings disaster on himself and his lover, Eurydice. I will also look at another myth, that of Lot’s wife in the Old Testament, who, like Orpheus, disobeys an injunction not to look back – in her case, on Sodom - and so was punished by being turned into a pillar of salt. I will examine how these warnings not to look back are relevant for our work as psychodynamic psychotherapists.

Orpheus looking back at Eurydice

Why did the Greek gods, in the case of Orpheus, and the Old Testament God, in the case of Lot and his wife, specify these injunctions against “looking back”? Why did Orpheus and Lot’s wife ignore the injunctions? What are the implications of looking back or not looking back for us as human beings? And what is the relevance of this issue for psychodynamic psychotherapy?

Thoughts about “Looking Back”

Perhaps we should not be asking, which is better, to look back or not to look back? Rather, we should be asking a different set of questions: with which patients is “looking back” good psychotherapy, at what points during therapy is it helpful to do so and how, in fact, do we help a patient look back?

Most of us who are trained in a psychodynamic approach subscribe to the notion that “looking back” can lead to new understandings about oneself, which in turn can help in personal transformation, i.e., “move forward”. But, there is a downside to "looking back." It can sometimes lead to being stuck in the past. Freud (1914) himself dealt with this problem when he wrote about the repetition compulsion, i.e. certain people are stuck in the past and destined to repeat their early, self-destructive patterns. Later writers (Levy, M., 1998) have re-examined this tendency in some people to recreate old, neurotic patterns both inside and outside the clinical setting. They call this phenomenon “re-enactment”, and the bottom line is that such people are unable to leave behind old, self-destructive behaviors and move on with their lives.

In the Old Testament we find a metaphorical reference to this kind of “stuckness” in the story of Lot and his wife. In the legend, three angles come to Sodom and advise Lot, the one good man in the whole city, to take his family and flee before the city is destroyed. Their warning contains one stipulation: no one can look back. Lot’s wife disobeys the warning and for reasons open to interpretation looks back over the doomed city. For her disobedience she is turned into a pillar of salt (which some claim can still be seen today in the harsh, stone mountains surrounding the Dead Sea).

Lot's Wife Looks Back

Lot's Wife turned into a Pillar of Salt

If, as we wrote in our prior article, legends can be a guide for clinical work (Shalit, 2008; Rycroft, 1995; Ferenczi, 1932, Jung, 1996, McGurn, 1998), then it behooves us to wonder not just about the tragic ending of the Orpheus story but also about the punishment of Lot’s wife. It seems as though there is a universal injunction, appearing in different legends from different eras, against “looking back”. We can wonder, for example, what is the symbolic meaning in the universal story of Peter Pan of the fact that young Peter has no shadow (when according to Jungians, we all have a shadowy side about which we are less aware and usually don’t want to know about, i.e., don’t want to look backwards, or behind our backs at our shadows). What are the implications for our clinical work of “looking back”? This question is particularly relevant to psychodynamic psychotherapists because the injunction to not look back contradicts one of psychoanalysis’ basic assumptions, that looking back over our lives is an essential condition for transformation and growth?

Peter Pan: the Boy Who Had no Shadow

The urge to look back, and the injunction against doing so, has been related to differently by different writers. Freud himself wrote in his essay, “Remembering, Repeating and Working Through” (Freud, 1914) of the need to find solutions to old issues and move forward. Ferenczi wrote about the importance of creating a particular music-like attitude in the consulting room which can help the patient move out of his old patterns.

And of course it is not just psychotherapists who have pondered the meanings of the Lot story. In an article by David Heyd (2004), the author - a philosopher - understands the biblical story to be telling us to look forward in our lives, not return to a fixated past. He writes:
“Looking back is a deadening act. It surely goes against the evolutionary imperative: if chased by a predator, run away as quickly as possible: any attempt to look back may cause one to waste time, maybe be hunted down.” 
“We are not built so as to simultaneously look back and move on.”
“Moving forwards is flowing on with time, whereas looking back, being stuck with the past, is an attempt to abolish time by freezing it.” 
“The future-oriented perspective presupposes the human capacity to change, to transform ones own personality and the world.”
Lot and his daughters did not look back, he points out. They went on to survive and even have sexual lives, however perverted (He slept with his two daughters). For Heyd, looking forward is the way to revitalization and survival.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

An excerpt from The Cycle of Life

From Chapter 3, The Puer and the Puella

Who are they, the young man and the maiden, the puer and the puella?

We easily recognize them in everyday confrontations with moody teenagers, when sexual desire competes with dark rage, the one setting the house on fire, the other breaking up the walls. Alternatively, and even worse, inexplicable withdrawal makes the earth quake in deadening silence.

There is beauty struggling with acne, and tender sensuality trying to contain awkward clumsiness. Eros and desire break through the face of insecure constraint, mercilessly exposing their blushing flare. Hope for the future competes with anxiety of failure and apocalyptic fears.

Thomas Coyle: Youth

Art and poetry, mythology, music and literature, abound with tales and pictures of the pain, suffering and sorrow of young Werthers, of hidden loneliness when the birds sing out of tune in a world without love, of trying to save the child in a world characterized by alienation and wicked adults, of the heights of falling in love, and then, the perhaps inevitable, yet barely possible climb out of the abyss of opaque emptiness.

When young and unfortunate Actaeon, Cadmus’s grandson, steals sight of the beautiful maiden goddess Diana, bathing undressed in the fountain, he becomes understandably speechless. Diana transforms him, as it were, from stag to stag, from having turned up unaccompanied at the party of the naked nymphs, to a stag with “antlers on his wet head.” And as he flees in fear, he wonders, “what to do? go home? to royal palace? hide in woods? shame blocks one, fear the other ...”

How painful is the conflict of youth, to be trapped between shame and fear! Shame blocks the regressive return to the safety of childhood’s royal palace, while slinking into the woods, where secrets of desire and the treasures of passion lie hidden, may be all too frightening. Eventually, however clumsy, the lad will have to overcome his fears and venture into the virgin forest, and the maiden will turn the stones to find and open up the mossy treasure shrine.

Serving as a narrow and dangerous bridge between childhood and the adult world, the puer functions not along the horizontal road of linear development, but attempts, rather, to unite what is above with what dwells below. “The horizontal world, the space-time continuum which we call ‘reality,’ says Hillman, “is not its world.” Furthermore, the puer is “weak on the earth, because it is not at home on earth. Its direction is vertical.” The puer has a “propensity of flying and falling.”

"Life", an original painting by Benjamin Shiff

The Cycle of Life is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Fisher King Press, and other online bookstores.


"Erel Shalit's Guidance Through the Journey of Life"
—Grady Harp (Hall of Fame, Top 50 Reviewer, Vine Voice)
Writing a review of the writings of Erel Shalit is daunting. How can anyone quickly distill the expansive and loving knowledge of this brilliant thinker and writer? The pleasure of reading Shalit's books (eg, ENEMY, CRIPPLE, BEGGAR: SHADOWS IN THE HERO'S PATH) is the absorbing of his manner of drawing us into his thoughts and speculations of Jungian individuation. He is a Jungian psychoanalyst in Israel but lectures throughout the world and the increasing acknowledgement of his many books indicates his level of importance in the community of psychology.

In THE CYCLE OF LIFE Shalit encourages the reader to reflect on all aspects of their time here on the earth, absorbing each of the stages of development of growing, but not dismissing the fountain of growth at the end of life. He early on gently shakes his finger at our contemporary thoughts of wanting to hide age: 'When cosmetics and plastic surgery mold a stiff and unyielding mask of youth, or rather of fictitious youthful appearance, old age cannot wear its true face of wisdom. By flattening our the valleys of our wrinkles, we erase the imprints of our character. Fixation in a narcissistic condition of an outworn mask silences the inner voice of meaning in our life.'

He divides his book into the stages of life and, of course, emphasizes the Jungian exploration of the second half of life (he reminds us that Jung is considered the father of the modern study of adult development). One of the selfless manners in which Shalit writes is his sharing of quotations by other writers - including Shakespeare's excerpt from 'As You Like It' - the 'All the world's a stage/ And all the men and women merely players etc'. He honors the words of colleagues alive and passed on, making sure that we the reader receive an expansive exposure to the interpretations of others.

But where Shalit blooms is in his compassion and this comes forward in the most needed spaces. He closes his book with the following: 'As much as we in old age reflect back upon what has been satisfactory in our lives, we need, as well, to bear our failures and foregone opportunities. Even if we have managed to walk our own individual path, having been fortunate to follow the road less traveled and found our way home to a sense of meaning in our personal quest, we need to carry the unanswered questions and unknown possibilities of the road not taken.' This is the soothing message he offers at the end of his insistence that we examine our lives as a whole. He is brilliant, he is warm, and we are the better for reading him. 

Rosh Hashana 2013
"Required Reading for all Travelers on Life's Journey"
—Dr. Arieh Friedler, Israel Adult Education Association
From the Bible to Shakespeare, to Carl Jung and to Erik Erikson, Erel Shalit's book, THE CYCLE OF LIFE poetically and informatively presents "the themes and tales of the journey". Shalit cites Jung who assured us that the journey entails BOTH the road we take and HOW we take that road, our conscious attitude. Likewise, as one sets out on the book's journey, s/he is aware of Shalit's profound understanding of the cycle of life. His expertise in Jungian psychology coupled with his vast personal experience in treating clients is apparent on nearly every page. It is HOW he presents the journey that makes this book both very enjoyable and very readable. Just as one feels that perhaps s/he is getting a bit lost in the psychological description of one of the stages in the life cycle, Shalit presents the reader with a poignant example from literature, Greek mythology, Eastern Philosophy, or from Jewish philosophy which illustrates and clarifies the issue for the layman.

As one of these laymen who is on the threshold of the last stage in the journey, I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone who wants to understand his or her own life as an individual or as part of the universe. The book should be required reading for all those starting out on "the journey", for those who deal with people who are somewhere on the path, and for those of us who are at the last station but who still have the strength and the curiosity to understand how s/he has arrived at this point. All in all THE CYCLE OF LIFE is an outstanding publication by a brilliant writer.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review of Books, reviewer Peter M. Fitzpatrick
"The perspective of life as a cycle lived through its stages enables us to bring the archetypal and the personal dimensions together."
While Sigmund Freud mapped out the psychosexual development of children to puberty through the oral, anal, phallic latency and genital stages, Carl Jung expanded the study of human development through the second half of life. Jung also expanded Freud's somewhat materialistic focus on psychosexuality as the source of the unconscious to include a vaster world of archetypes that emanate from our undifferentiated Selves through symbolic forms. It is the child's slow separation from the Great Mother archetype that allows him to incorporate the powerful unconscious energies of this symbol into a developing ego. The next stage, the "puer," or troubled teenager, carries this process further, adding the "fire" of his or her growing awareness of Eros to the "dismemberment" of the "unconscious" contents of the archetypes so that the ego can use their energies. A successful transition to adulthood entails a completion of the ego's ascendancy. But the ego must learn to surrender its role as "king" once old age begins.

The author engagingly illustrates Jung's conceptions of the power of the archetypal forces that inhabit our unconscious Selves, showing how they are dual, with both grandiose and terrible aspects. In accessible language, he maps out how figures from the Bible, Greek mythology, and fairy tales contain eternal truths on the mythic level where the Self at the core of our being operates. He explicates the dangers of becoming stuck in a particular stage, and cites actual cases of individuals he has helped make the transitions in his clinical practice as Jungian analyst.

Francesco Albani: Diana and Actaeon