Saving the Soul 2.0
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
I don’t try to determine what my life will become, but rather I do everything possible to participate in its unfolding, following the signs that lead me where my soul’s desire lies and my fate awaits me.
(Moore, 1996, p. 367)
As I am thinking once more about what exactly I mean by ‘soul’, that notion that I feel so strongly about without ever having been fully able to explain what it means, my phone rings. For two months now, it’s been Corona quarantine time, and virtual conversations with friends across the globe have become extremely important in retaining a sense of groundedness and sanity. Soul connection is what makes it possible to keep on keeping on when “[a]ll that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” (Marx & Engels, 1848/2012, p. 77). Translated to April 2020, it means that for the first time in my life, I am forced to spend a lot of time by myself. I cannot travel to be with my lovers, and I cannot go out to distract myself as I used to. I generally have to review the patterns and habits that shaped my life thus far, because I know that when this is over, the world and I will not be the same. In the period of my self-experiment from September 2019, which already entailed intense personal transformation, the circumstances ask me: how will you navigate this unexpected turn of events in a creative way? (See God in Corona World for an earlier take on this question.) I tell my friend that I am in the midst of contemplating the meaning of soul, and that it seems rather fitting to shift from consideration to application, to keep things grounded. And so we talk, about how we are coping, about how we are adjusting our future plans, about missing sex, and about collaborating at a distance on the music for my friend’s circus school assignment. After our call, I start writing.
The soul is under threat
The soul is under threat. My soul is under threat. I realise that I’m carrying this sense around with me as I’m standing at the window, smoking a cigarette. Under threat from academia, from literalness, from relativism, cynicism, modernism, determinism, from enlightenment, light, and bad lighting, from positivism, dualistic thinking, materialism, and capitalism, from career pressure and burocracy, from dumb series, smartphone hypnosis, and toxic positivity, from ugly aluminium picture frames and mass-produced ‘art’ you can buy at Ikea. I’m sure I forgot some essentials. To go into the details of each of these phenomena is outside the scope of this thinking piece, but for now it suffices to say that none of these paradigms allow much space for a notion of soul – if it is not bluntly rejected and reasoned away (to me, aluminium picture frames are also an embodiment of a paradigm). The list seems overwhelming, but at the same time I know that the fact that I’ve been able to name these perceived threats gives me some agency. It means that I’ve developed a soul literacy that wasn’t always present.
How I felt about soul throughout my life
When I was a child, soul had something to do with religion. I remember it as that aspect of the self that was closest to God, most like God perhaps. Children were supposed to have a pure soul. I was supposed to have a pure soul. That purity could be smudged by falling for the temptations of the devil, present all around me in the form of McDonalds, television, the desire to buy things in order to belong with the others, sex, and generally everything that didn’t fit the Catholic framework. Or so my father told me. The notion of soul communicated to me by my mother was more forgiving – there was less fear connected to it, and she gave me the sense that there were forces out there helping take care of me. It gave me the feeling that being the way I was, my soul would be alright.
Illustration from a children’s book my mother used to read to me (Langen, 1969).
When I was a teenager, I started to question all of this. I had become suspicious of my mother’s interest in a whole lot of things thrown on a heap under the label New Age, because I felt like it lacked critical engagement. Whilst developing an interest in philosophy and world religions, I rejected my father’s suffocating Catholic convictions, because I didn’t buy the contradictions I started to perceive in the church framework anymore. Despite occasionally going to McDonalds and starting to be interested in sex and pop culture, I never felt out of sync with Jesus, who seemed generous with everyone except the money lenders. On my search for meaning I also turned to science – the harshest type of science I could find – because I thought maybe its scrutiny would be a way to the truth. (If it seems strange to feel in sync with Jesus and be interested in world religions and turn to science at the same time, consider this line from Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” (Berra in Moore, 1997, p. 402). I read a book by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1978/1989). I remember its key argument being something along the lines of: ‘Every agency you think you have is an illusion, because in the end everything you want and do is determined by the agenda of genes programming you to keep them alive. You are nothing more than a vehicle to them’. After that, I felt, well, disillusioned. A coldness crept in, and a pointlessness. I couldn’t quite marry it with my actual experience of life, but I accepted that it was science and therefore supposedly true. That’s what I’d learned at school. Nobody had taught me yet that science itself is based on a system of beliefs, and that its ‘truths’ are informed by debatable and conflicting ideological agendas and theories. In any case, I became sarcastic about matters of the soul, even though I didn’t like it at all.
Some years passed, and I didn’t become a scientist – even though maths, physics, chemistry, and biology were the subjects I most revered at school (or was that because they were boys’ subjects?). Instead, I ended up studying art, ‘because it’s the one thing I don’t understand’, as I used to tell myself. Studying art whilst holding the view that apart from objective science, there is no truth, and all personal experience is illusory, and everybody has their own perspective on the world, and I can never know yours and you can never know mine, and so everything is relative anyway, is … interesting. I’m not surprised that during those years, everything ceased to make sense to me. I was completely adrift, not knowing where to look for an understanding of my experiences, or an understanding of why I was doing what I was doing. I managed to get through art academy, but not in a great way. I was too confused, as I felt that I couldn’t trust my experience. When I look back at the things I made in that time, it’s only my drawings and paintings that still speak to me, because I decided I would just do them without questioning them. (Therefore, I chose to feature some of my favourites throughout this piece.) But drawings were not taken very seriously, unless there was a clever concept behind them – which I never managed to construct. Near the end of art academy, I still didn’t understand what art was.
New anti-definitions of soul
When I came across the notion of social sculpture, the idea that you can shape life as art coined by the German artist Joseph Beuys, things began to take an interesting turn. It seemed that perhaps, there was a possibility that art could be about more than the art world, that an artistic and creative mode of engaging with the world could be relevant and meaningful in a wider sense. During my MA in Social Sculpture at Oxford Brookes University, I was introduced to Jungian psychoanalysis, and in particular with James Hillman’s and Thomas Moore’s work on the soul – which is about taking seriously one’s experience and paying attention to the quality of the connection with oneself and the world one inhabits:
It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway: the soul prefers to imagine. We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth, as when we say certain music has soul or a remarkable person is soulful. When you look closely at the image of soulfulness, you see that it is tied to life in all its particulars—good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart. Soul is revealed in attachment, love, and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy.
(Moore, 1998, pp. xi-xii)
Suddenly, it seemed that soul might not be something vague related to my individuality, but present everywhere, not just in me but in me in the world. And that soulfulness could be a criterium for making the world a better place, wherever my agency reaches. A criterium based on what makes me feel enlivened, makes me feel more with myself, and with what makes life worth living. Soulfulness might not be a quality that can be measured, and something about it resists it being captured and pinned down as a concept. Engaging with it requires some degree of willingness to face the unknown, the darkness, and the unexplainable background against which everything happens (see Darkifiesto, God in Corona World, and My favourite mystery). Also, it will not be experienced in the same way by every person. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and is not important. In the words of James Hillman:
[We] are not dealing with something that can be defined; and therefore soul is really not a concept, but a symbol. Symbols, as we know, are not completely under our control, so that we are not able to use the word in an unambiguous way, even though we take it to refer to that unknown human factor which makes meaning possible, which turns events into experiences, and which is communicated in love.
(Suicide and the Soul, pp. 46-47)
I realised my soul is safe
Unexpectedly, my PhD journey – especially the final part of the self-experiment – has turned into a way of coming to terms with soul, of becoming able to see beyond the threats imposed on it, and of realising that what I do is in fact soulful research or even soul work, as Hillman puts it. Despite my fear of losing my soul to the devil, materialism, relativism, and academia, I have realised that after all, it might be safe. Even within the framework of academia, I have found it possible to retain a connection with the fabric of life – as have many other people. Going down an academic pathway for me has in fact never meant giving up on soulfulness – even if at times I was worried about turning into a disconnected intellectual (see The Salty Sea). What I’ve been doing all along is trying to practice an alternative to the academic traps I have been so critical and afraid of, and realising that feels like a kind of reconciliation with what I find beautiful about academia and what is perhaps at its roots: a love for the world and for learning, for the sake of becoming a better person and for contributing to making the world a slightly better place. This realisation feels like a burden lifting and energy freeing up to commit myself to my work, which, to use Thomas Moore’s words, I wish to be a ‘manifesto of enchantment’:
[T]his manifesto of enchantment […] is rooted in love and in a fundamentally erotic approach to every aspect of life. If we were to look at our personal difficulties and our social problems as matters of love, we might realize how utterly inappropriate it is to pursue intellectual solutions to those problems.
(Moore, 1996, p. 370)
A personal and a political matter
Now that I’ve developed a greater understanding of the value of soulfulness as a criterium for approaching the shaping of personal and social situations, I feel the desire to speak about it openly. The threats to the soul are very real, both from the world out there and as much from internalised patterns of thinking. For a start, there is the educational system, the agenda of which is to produce compliant and productive citizens rather than critical and free spirits with a social orientation. Then there are gross disparities in circumstances around class background, upbringing, and financial situation. And not to forget the mass media that speak in the interest of the rich, the white, and those in power. The pressures that society puts on people and the precarious circumstances in which many find themselves make it extremely difficult to carve out a space for soulfulness in life – especially beyond the personal realm. I do think that whilst the language of soul that I’ve been drawing on in this piece is uncommon, it might be a useful perspective for approaching and validating experiences of lack and alienation that many people seem to be feeling, without knowing how to talk about it and justify it to themselves and others. It can be a way of self-empowerment and mutual support. At the same time, it is essential to see that the threats to soul are not merely a personal issue, to be resolved in the private realm or through ‘personal development’. They emerge from problems existing on a systemic scale and should also be addressed as such. A Universal Basic Income could relieve the pressures of many, freeing capacity to deal with quality-of-life issues. It would not only lift the weight of the struggle to survive, but could also lead to greater social acceptance for attending to things that are not only about money and status. Access to free health care would also help. Furthermore, a less competitive school system that puts a sense of meaning and purpose first and fosters children’s creativity, self-esteem, and connection to the other-than-human realm is needed. Also for adults, learning spaces and spaces to heal from trauma are essential (see the DIY Learning Spaces project for interesting examples of some grassroots initiatives working in this direction.) Altogether, such interventions in the status quo would really contribute to lifting the burdens that make space for the soul in Western societies so precarious.
Where does this leave me in terms of becoming an artist of society? Let me recap. Soulfulness has to do with the quality of one’s connection to the world and oneself in it. If the quality is compromised, for example because one is under pressure, anxious, or because one never had access to ways of understanding the value of a good-enough self-world connection and ways of enhancing it, one’s interactions with the world (including oneself) could be impoverished and lacking in creativity. As Shelley Sacks puts it, one’s ‘ability-to-respond’ (2018, p. 175) might be affected. However, if one learns to read the language of the soul, starting with taking one’s experience seriously, it might be possible to enhance it. It could, for example, be done by slowing down, close noticing, suspending judgment, making space to wonder and imagine, paying attention to dreams and half-thoughts, journaling or engaging in another form of expressive processing of experiences, and perhaps most importantly, speaking about one’s experiences with others. Becoming more attuned to feeling/perceiving/knowing what’s going on, one’s responses might become more creative and appropriate. After all, despite the threats posed to soul as something to take seriously, there might be a way of learning to read its signs and finding where its desire lies. The work of artists of society could hence involve bringing soulfulness into places that are currently devoid of it, shaping our own life and wherever it touches on society at large in a more meaningful, caring, and loving manner.
Dawkins, R. (1989) The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hillman, J. (1997) Suicide and the soul. Woodstock: Spring.
Langen, H. (1969) Van Avond tot Morgen. Basel, Switzerland: Zu den sieben Zwergen.
Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1848/2012) The Communist Manifesto. Edited by J. C. Isaac. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Moore, T. (1996) The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life. Harper Collins, New York.
Moore, T. (1997) ‘The Liminal Zones of Soul’. In Gablik, S. (Ed.), Conversations before the end of time. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, pp. 381-409.
Moore, T. (1998) Care of the soul: How to add depth and meaning to your everyday life. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Sacks, S. (2018) ‘Sustainability without the I-sense is nonsense: Inner ‘technologies’ for a viable future and the inner dimension of sustainability’. In: Parodi, O., Tamm, K. (Eds.), Personal Sustainability: Exploring the Far Side of Sustainable Development. Routledge, Abingdon, pp. 171–188.
Additional recommendations for soulful readings
Lusseyran, J. (2016) Against the Pollution of the I: On the Gifts of Blindness, the Power of Poetry, and the Urgency of Awareness. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Nhat Hanh, T. (2010) The Sun My Heart. New Delhi: Full Circle.
Sacks, S. & Zumdick, W. (2013) Atlas of the Poetic Continent: Pathways to Ecological Citizenship. Forest Row: Temple Lodge Publishing.
Solnit, R. (2006) A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Edinburgh: Canongate.