To Reveal To Conceal

“Reason is emotion’s slave and exists to rationalize emotional experience. Sometimes the function of speech is to communicate experience to another; sometimes it is to miscommunicate experience to another. Sometimes the object is to achieve access to, and permit access from, a good spirit; conversely, to deny access to a bad spirit.”

These sentences appear on the first pages of psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion’s book, Attention and Interpretation. Speech is not a simple matter of communicating something true to another. To reveal, and to conceal, and endless combinations of the two, with varying degrees of conscious intentionality, is the way things go. Bion is speaking in particular of the psychoanalytic situation, a certain kind of place, and relationship, and method of proceeding. To say that reason is emotion’s slave is a hard saying for me to stomach, given my background in philosophy. On the other hand, my reason indicates to me that Bion is right to a greater extent than is comfortable to admit.

I find strange comfort in this troubling news.

Here’s why, or here is my attempt to conceal and reveal the why. To begin, I must let you in on a little twisty journey my thinking and feeling has taken in the past few weeks.

I was re-reading Saul Bellow’s novel, Humboldt’s Gift, a favorite that I read in my 20s, I think, and immediately knew as one of those novels that would return to me over the years to put certain questions and thoughts to the fore and hopefully deepen my sense of the real. So anyway, I was reading and found that the main character, Charlie Citrine, constantly refers to Austrian mystic, philosopher, and founder of the “spiritual science” and the popular movements of anthroposophy and Waldorf schooling, Rudolf Steiner. Steiner wrote prolifically about his spiritual experiences, and Charlie finds himself drawn into Steinerian meditative exercises aimed at perceiving spiritual beings, and (thus for Charlie) overcoming the disenchanted materialism of modernity and its soulless world of matter-in-motion. I read a bit of Steiner myself after encountering Charlie’s interest, but so far haven’t been able to dig it. I feel like Steiner is pulling spiritual fantasies out of the unconscious (fine with me), but calling them literal realities, truths that can be known directly by the initiate. I have trouble with that sort of move on many levels that I won’t go into now.

Then I picked up a copy of Saul Bellow’s Letters, and found that he had carried on a correspondence with Owen Barfield–a Steinerian anthroposophist himself–on spiritual and other matters. Barfield was one of the Inklings–the Oxford-based group of writers that included J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and C.S. Lewis. I have known about him for many years, but never explored his writings in depth. In these letters (don’t you miss actual letters?) and in his fascinating books, Barfield turns out to be the more intelligent exponent of the spiritual views that may originate in Steiner, though, as C.G. Jung notes, most of what you find in anthroposophy or theosophy you can find in the ancient Indian scriptures.

Barfield specializes in “thinking about thinking,” to use his own phrase. He is also (like the other Inklings) trying to rediscover something lost to modernity and our way of apprehending reality. He finds a way to understand the world itself as animated and in fact conscious. In a word, his world is ensouled.

Rather abruptly, back to Bion. What is this talk of “good spirit” and “bad spirit”? I am so curious that he chooses these words, in a work that wants to bring precision to psychoanalytic speech. He does not elaborate the choice in these pages. For me the word spirit in this context evokes the uncanny. I imagine a hidden space, and an intense desire to invite another into this space, and at the very same moment an intense desire to block access at all costs.

In other words, I imagine an irrational moment. What struck me about Steiner and Barfield was a wish to make it all conscious, to evolve to a spiritually enlightened state and progressively reveal mysteries. Where is the irrational in this? Where is that which forever resists attempts to colonize it and know it and progress beyond it? My own sense is that the irrational factor is the very factor necessary for the ensoulment of the world. Without it, language would conquer and illuminate everything, leaving no place for unknowing, and thus no place for wonder, symbol, and relationship to the mysterious other outside oneself.

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