Robert Romanysyn : The Soul in Grief

A conversation with Dolores E. Brien : Part Two


Robert Romanysyn on Technology : The Soul in Grief

A conversation with Dolores Brien : Part Two

Dolores: How did you come to write The Soul in Grief: Love, Death, and Transformation?

Robert: I never consciously planned to write it, but a deep personal tragedy in my life made it a duty. Working on it these last two years, I have come to see how it was already seeded in Technology As Symptom and Dream, where grief was called depression, and the sadness and sorrow of the grieving was attached to the collective losses of the soul in a technological culture. But it took a personal loss to make all that real for me. The sad truth is that I was still too much the spectator in the technology book. It took the shock of the most terrible kind to awaken me. Without this personal loss, the grief of my soul was covered by the shell of depression. This personal tragedy cracked that shell and revealed beneath it a shared, collective sorrow.

Dolores: Are you saying that depression is a cultural symptom which covers over our collective fear of the grieving process? That our depression hides that deep wisdom of the soul which would recognize, as you said earlier, that life is about loving in the face of loss?

Robert: Absolutely! And I am saying that perhaps it is only the shattering loss of our individula tragedies which now have the power to awaken us to the sorrows and tears of the collective soul.

Dolores: Can you say some more about the grieving process on a collective level and its relation to the personal?

Robert: I believe the personal and collective dimensions of grief are bound together, and the grief book weaves these strands into a pattern which finds at the core of the grieving soul the figures of the Orphan and the Angel. In our personal grieving, if we can endure it, our tears run into the deeper waters of the collectve soul adrift in a technological culture.. Of course, it also works the other way as well. Sometimes it is the collective tragedy which awakens, at least momentarily, our individual sense of sorrow and loss.

Dolores: The Orphan and the Angel--you mean these as archetypal figures, don't you? Who are they?

Robert: Yes, they are archetypal figures of the soul, whose appearance, I believe, heralds a spiritual awakening.The Orphan, I believe, is the aftertaste of our angelic existence, and in this sense I would claim that grief, if it is endured, can restore to us a sense of the sacred and the holy which our technological consciousness lacks and desires. Perhaps at the core of our grief, just beneath the skin of depression, is a deep hunger for an epiphany of the divine.

Dolores: What happened after the death of Princess Diana is an example of what you are saying, isn't it?

Robert: Yes, exactly! But we can't forget how little real impact it has had on transforming in any lasting way the collective soul of our culture. Apart from the way it was turned into a media spectacle, the grief which it released has been more or less confined to the event of her death. The grief which was collectively awakened for a moment did not alter in any way, for example, the terribly grievous situation in Kosovo. If we were really transformed by our collective grief at her death, we might have raised our voices in one collective shout of mourning to say, "Enough!" But we grieve, we get past it, and the violence continues, over there in Kosovo, a safe distance, but over here too in Columbine or Atlanta or Los Angeles where it strikes too close to home for comfort.

Dolores: From your perspective, what did we miss in her tragic and untimely death?

Robert: We made Diana into a fairy tale princess which did tap into an archetypal, collective root. That is why it was such a powerful release of world-wide grief. In this archetypal context we saw briefly something of her Orphan, waif-like character. She was for a moment the abandoned princess. Ironically, however, the image of the fairy-tale princess was also the way our collective consciousness could dismiss it. The princess dies-a nice fairy tale.

Dolores: Before you mentioned violence. Grief seems to be the antithesis of violence. Is there a connection between the violence of our culture and its inability or unwillingness to grieve?

Robert: I believe so. To endure grief requires the painful admission that we have lost what we love. I said before we grieve because we have dared to love. Well, isn't violence a refusal to love? And isn't this refusal made easier with increasing distance from the other, a distance which lies at the root of that spectator consciousness who keeps an eye upon the world but remains unmoved and untouched by it? Grief asks us to feel, and for a mind which has taken leave of its senses, this appeal to be touched and moved by the other is too threatening.

I would add that in a technological culture whose values include efficiency, grief is a waste of time. Grieving takes time but time is money. So, as I already said, we pathologize grief by turning into depression for which we have the immediate solution. Easier to pop a Prozack and not think about it. Take a pill and feel better! Better living through chemistry! Besides it turns a profit for the capitalist culture which needs to feed off the pathologies it helps to create. We are driving ourselves crazy and then engineering the drugs to take away the symptoms. Truly a catch 22: if you think you're crazy, you're not crazy; you are only crazy if you think all this is normal.

Dolores: Getting in touch with our grief, individually and collectively, is one way of speaking up for soul: that's a hard sell in our culture, isn't it?

Robert: Absolutely! Grief not only is counter to most of the values which a technological society cherishes, it is also, as I said earlier, un-American. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are enshrined as inalienable rights in our Declaration of Independence. But, under the impact of technolgy, all of these eighteenth century enlightenment values have been transformed. Just consider, for example the craziness involved in our right to life debate. We defend the right of the un-born even as we continue the buildup of weapons of mass destruction and become the largest arms dealer in the world, not to mention the powerful presence of the NRA in the gun debate in this country. Or take liberty: rights without duties, freedom withour responsibilities. Does everyone really have the right to own an automatic weapon? And happiness? It has been transformed into the manic and frenzied pursuit of entertainment.

I am not surprised, therefore, that I had a difficult time finding a publisher for my book on grief. The book invites the reader into the winter country of the soul in grief, a place for which there are no maps. It takes courage to endure the grieving process when everything in our culture is aimed at getting you past it as quickly as possible, and giving you a map for the territory so you don't have to experience anything. A twelve step program for everything. A workbook for everything from sexual techniques to the hero's and heroine's journey. I was fortunate therefore to find a publisher with the courage to get past the bottom line. All the early rejections were that the message wasn't marketable. Grief doesn't sell. This is the voice of a technological culture.

Dolores: So you approach technology not as a Luddite with a sense of fear of the machines, but with a sense of grief which asks for the sake of soul what we are missing, or forgetting, or losing of our humanity? Where do you see the soulful aspects of technology?

Robert: Let's go back to our earlier discussion of cyberspace and the internet. In cyberspace we enter a kind of dreamscape while we are awake, another kind of reality which is neither an empirical fact nor a mental idea. Now Jung calls that reality which is neither empirical nor mental the psyche. Another name for it from the work of Henri Corbin who strongly influenced Jung is the mundus imaginalis. I call it the imaginal realm.

Cyberspace and the Internet can be the soul's way of reminding us of this reality, of calling our attention to the imaginal realm which is the soul's landscape. I am not saying that cyberspace or the Internet is the imaginal domain of soul. I am saying that these technologies are a symptomatic way in which the soul awakens us to this domain which has been forgoten, repressed if you wish. Like all symptoms it is an opportunity to remember something which is necessary not to forget, but which we have forgotten because it is too painful to remember.

Dolores: Please say a liitle more about this imaginal realm, especially in terms of how Jung understood it to be the autonomous domain of the soul.

Robert: Take for example Jung's discussion in Memories, Dreams, Reflections of his encounters with the figure Philemon. If you read those passages within the context of Jung's extensive work on alchemy, you can see that Jung understood that Philemon is an autonomous figure of the soul. Philemon is neither a projection of Jung's unconscious nor a reality in the material sense, like the stones on the path in his garden where he walks and talks with Philemon. In a recent article, "Alchemy and the Subtle Body of Metaphor," I show how Jung's psychology was always devoted to this reality, how it is the recovery of the imaginal world eclipsed by the Cartesian dream of reason which split matter and mind.

Dolores: Your description of the imaginal sounds very much like your earlier remarks about the metaphorical. Are they related?

Robert: Yes, a metaphor too opens this domain of experience which is neither an empirical fact nor a mental idea. A metaphor opens a vision of reality and invites one into a way of experiencing the world which has as little to do with discovering facts as it has to do with creating ideas. A metaphor is closer to a revelation, or to an sudden epiphany. It is, if you wish, a small miracle, a moment when the depths of the imaginal break through the profane and ordinary world.

Dolores: You seem to be suggesting that the imaginal has a metaphorical structure to it. Is that what you mean?

Robert: The imaginal is the autonomous domain of soul, a third world, which is as different from the empirical domain of matter as it is from the rational domain of mind. And just as mind has the clarity of ideas, and matter the certainty of facts, soul has the vision of metaphor. Jung's true genius is that he understood that the proper object of psychology was this imaginal domain of the soul, and not that of matter, which belongs to the physical sciences, nor that of mind or spirit, which belong to philosphy and theology.

All of my work about technology is in service to that vision. It is about the recovery of the imaginal depths of the soul for a technological consciousness which has reduced soul to mind and split mind from matter. Jung has indicated on many occasions that the soul is the pivot which holds matter and spirit together. When soul is eclipsed matter and spirit fall apart, nature and mind fall apart. The result is a world in which matter is in-animate, nature is dead, and soul is the shadow which darkens the dreams of spirit and mind.

Dolores: Earlier you spoke of metaphor as a small miracle where the depths of the imaginal break through the profane and ordinary world and open a new vision. Can you give an example here?

Robert: Yes! A beautiful example straight from alchemy is the salamander roasting in the fire. That is a vision of the soul, and we need to ask here what it wants of us. How are we being addressed here? What are we being called to attend to? It is a waking dream, and like a dream a reality which is something wholly other than the ego-mind.

We miss the imaginal sense of the salamander when we say it is a projection of the alchemist's unconsciousness. You see when we say this we are already caught up in the Cartesian split of material facts and psychic ideas. Because the salamander is not really there in the fire, because it is not a factual reality, we have to say it is an interior psychological one, projected onto the outside world. The Cartesian heritage of matter and mind says it must be either one or the other.

Now, although Jung himself often spoke this way of alchemy, as a projection of the alchemist's unconsciousness, he also did say that this either-or way of thinking did not apply to alchemy. And when he says that he is staying with the imaginal sense of the world and its neither-nor vision.

It is difficult not to think of the salamander as a projection of the alchemist's unconscious.

Yes, it is! In part it is difficult because projection does exist. But as Von Franz notes it is nearly impossible to tell with certainty what is a projection and what is not. In any case, my point is that even when projection is happening, it is not the transfer of a content from some interior space to some exterior space. That way of explaining it leaves us stuck in the Cartesian dream of either matter or mind and leaves no place for soul.

Dolores: So Jung's insistence on the autonomy of the imaginal forces us to re-think the notion of projection. Is that a fair conclusion of what you have said?

Robert: It is. And that is what is so important about Jung's work on alchemy. He shows us a way of thinking which is about the field. The salamander as an imaginal reality is an epiphany in the field between the alchemist in reverie before the fire and the world of the alchemist's chamber. It is neither a fact over there in the world, nor an idea in the alchemist's unconscious. It is a subtle body which arises between the alchemist and the world. It is the subtle body of metaphor.

Dolores: Where else do you find Jung's devotion to the imaginal domain of the soul leading to a radicl new way of thinking?

Robert: The work on synchronicity. It is singularly important. It also has a deep connection with alchemy. A work still needs to be done which shows the connection between alchemy and sychronicity. Such a work would, I think, also show how alchemy is an ancient quantum physics, and how quantum physics is a new alchemy.

Dolores: Does the imaginal play an increasing role in your work?

Robert: Since the technology book I have increasingly focused my attention on the imaginal. I mentioned earlier the article "Alchemy and the Subtle Body of Metaphor," which will appear as a chapter in a volume edited by Roger Brooke entitled "Pathways into the Jungian World," to be published in the fall of 1999 by Routledge.

In another piece called "On Angels and Other Anomalies of the Imaginal Life," I approach the reality of the imaginal through a consideration of angels and the golden dome of heaven in medieval paintings. It will appear in the English journal "The Temenos Academy Review, "edited by Kathleen Raine, the world's foremost authority on William Blake, that truly inspired visionary who chartered so much of the geography of the imaginal world.

I like this piece because in it I was able to show how reverie is the mood of consciousness which is best attuned to the imaginal, and how hospitality is the custom which best attends its appearance. I was also able to show how the imaginal is the eruption of the numinous face of the ordinary, and how, therefore, it always has a sacred dimension to it which is awe-ful, a dimension whose eruption fills us with holy terror.

So for the past ten years I have been slowly working toward a defense of the imaginal realm and showing its relation to such themes as reverie, hospitality, metaphor, and the sacred, and its connection to the traditions of alchemy, quantum physics, and phenomenology.

Dolores: The imaginal as a place which inspires holy terror. Can you say more here?

Robert: Speaking of the Angel, the poet Rilke says that its beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror we are just able to bear. It is this terror of the beautiful which erupts in the imaginal. Like those of old who were struck dumb by the eruption of the Angel into their world, the imaginal initially stuns us with its presence. Like one of those big dreams which upon awakening leave us speechless for a moment.

Dolores: We began this discussion of the imaginal in relation to cyberspace. How does the imaginal breakthrough in this technology and that of the Internet?

Robert: In both it is the eruption of the imaginal in symptomatic form. Consider, for example this interview. We have never met and in responding to your questions I am in a dialogue with an image of who I imagine you to be. In this respect, this connection between us is really no different from the connection which also exists between an author and his or her imagined audience, and really also no different from any form of encounter with others. There is always an image of the other at work, and, in a sense, we can say that we are always in a kind of reverie with the other where perception is veiled by a dream.

But your image of who I, as your quesioner, might be, might be your fantasy projected onto me. And that, as you said, is not the same thing as the imaginal as an autonomous reality of the soul.

Right! But remember I approach this technology as a symptom. So, while projection might be at work here, it might also be true that the image I have of you is an intuition of who you truly are and what your interests are. Or, we might say that it is the themes of this interview which draw us together, the soul of the work as it were which belongs to the archetypal field between us. We just never know for sure.

In any case, my approach is to consider how this technology might be inviting us to remember the imaginal. Just as we are doing right now, this technology might help to make this reality more conscious for us. And even if I am off the mark here, the Internet might at least serve to raise the level of consciousness in culture about the reality and force of projection. Can you imagine the possibilities if we can use this technology with this kind of awareness?

Dolores: But this increase in awareness doesn't seem to be happening. Why is that?

Robert: You are right, and for me that is grievous because it points again to what we are ignoring or forgetting about ourselves Here is an opportunity which soul gives to the technological mind to recollect itself, and again we do not hear it. So the imaginal landscape of the Internet becomes a place for the pornographic mind.

But, again, even here with pornography, we might read its display symptomatically as the soul's way of trying to grab our attention, like it did in the consulting rooms of Freud and Jung. There too sex was a symptom. Sex is such a basic and powerful expression of the instinctual life of the soul that its pornographic, symptomatic presence on the internet does not surprise me.

Dolores: You are not condoning its display, are you?

Robert: No! I am saying only that we do not really address the source of the symptom if we condemn it. Our moral outrage leaves it to the politicians, and to paraphrase an old political gem about war being too important to leave to the generals, sex is too important to leave to the politicians. Do you want the likes of Clinton or so much of the Congress legislating on this issue?

We need to attend to the soul of the matter here. The pornographic display is a symptom and a dream. So ask, what does the dream want of us here? What is it asking us to attend to? And here I would turn to Jung's understanding of the polarity of sex and spirit. As strange as this might sound, I would offer the suggestion that the pornographic display on the Internet is the soul's symptomatic way of calling us back to a sense of the sacred.

Dolores: On the Internet--from pornography to the sacred! I have the feeling that with your last statement we have arrived at what is for you a fundamental issue about technology. Is that right?

Robert: Yes! We are, I believe, so hungry for some sign of the numinous in our individual and collective lives, and the technological culture we have built is so devoid of its presence, that I fear we are fast approaching disaster. And here we return to where we started this interview, with the book on technology. The rise of modern technological consciousness coincides with the rise of a modern ego consciousness, which believes itself to be the master of the cosmos. The Frankenstein motif underlies this fantasy, and we know the result of Mary Shelly's tale. Victor Frankenstein would become a god by creating life. His hubris, however, ends with his own destruction after all that he has loved has been destroyed. The tale, I believe, warns that we cannot live an un-bounded life. Without some sense of the divine our ego-minds will, and have,run amok. We are children playing in the dark, with increasingly powerful toys.

(The end of Part II and the conclusion of the conversation with Robert Romanyshyn)



Biographical Profile

Robert D. Romanyshyn, Ph.D. is a teacher, writer, and psychotherapist trained in phenomenology and depth psychology who applies his therapeutic experience to an analysis of contemporary cultural and historical issues. Since 1991 he has been a core faculty member in the Clinical and Depth Psychology programs at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA. His latest book to be published in October, The Soul in Grief: Love, Death and Transformation, is a poetics of the grieving process which explores the relations between personal grief and its cultural and collective dimensions. He is also working on two other books. Notes of A Witness is a reflection of his more than twenty-five years of experience as a psychotherapist. In the Shadows of the Reasonable Mind: Of Monsters, Angels, and other Anomalies of the Imaginal Life is an exploration of the problems of human consciousness in relation to nature. Drawing on the developments in physics, mathematics, and biology as well as on the ancient wisdom to be found in alchemy and gnosticism, this work offers a way of knowing and being which situates consciousness as part of the ecology of all creation.

Selected Bibliography

The Soul in Grief: Love, Death, and Transformation. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1999

Technology as Symptom & Dream. London, New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1989.

Psychological Life: From Science to Metaphor. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.

"The Despotic Eye and Its Shadow: Media Image in the Age of Literacy," in Modernity & The Hegemony of Vision, David Michael Levin (ed.), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

"Technology and Homecoming: Wilderness as Landscape of Soul," in Jung in the Context of Southern Africa, Graham S. Saayman (ed.), Boston: SIGO, 1990.

Psychology and the Attitude of Science," in Existential-Phenomenological Perspectives in Psychology, 2nd Ed., R. Valle and S. Halling (eds.), New York: Plenum, 1989.

"The Attitude of Science and the Crisis in Psychology," in Duquesne Studies in Phenomenological Psychology: Vol. I, A. Giorgi, et al. (eds.), Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press, 1971.

"The Dream Body in Cyberspace", Psychological Perspectives, No. 29, 1994. Reprinted also on the Jung Page.

"Galileo's Dream." A television pilot script on the history of science, written and produced December, 1984. Televised ICTN, October, 1985.

© Dolores Brien 2000.
E-mail :
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.