Wael Al-Mahdi (2010)

I saw the image, large and framed in black, of a well-known historical figure who is noted for his having been martyred in a very bloody way.  The image was the kind that was usually held aloft in mourning processions.  It had a stylized painting of his countenance.  He looked me from the picture and said, “I apologize for being martyred.  I am sorry for all the pain and sadness that I have caused people over centuries.”

This is the vision of a sensitive young man, a vision remarkable in that the  martyr begs our pardon for precisely that feeling that he and his fellows through history were expected to excite.  The philosopher Nietzsche said that the martyr’s mourners suffer more than the martyr himself.  It would seem that the truth of that psychological statement is established in this vision.  Why does the martyr apologize and what is the symbolism involved here?  Should we be driven to suspect, from the dangerous symbols displayed, a conflict of emotions and feelings that must be resolved, a conflict for which the dream shows a possible resolution?   The martyr expectedly represents an other-worldly sadness, a deep alien melancholy, a dark end-of-the-world emotional state.  As the unconscious is known in many contexts to throw up images of reconciliation.  Can we therefore see a hint of the resolution of conflict in the most unexpected twist in this vision, namely the apology of the venerable martyr?  It is a question of reconciliation between the titanic forces of madness and darkness from the unconscious, and the sane, daylight forces of the conscious ego.

The well-known battle of the mythological hero against the dragon represents this same kind of conflict.  There is a conflict between the terrors of the external world, as they are represented in the unconscious.  In other words, the external world never oppress us directly.  Rather, the impressions that we get from the external world get converted into unconscious representations.  These unconscious representations frequently overrepresent the danger, i.e. they become exaggerated and attach numinous, or spontaneous and living terror to the thing represented.  At other times, however, they may become attenuated and almost ignored.  This is the state of oblivion, which is likely to result in a rude awakening.  Both the state of exaggeration and oblivion can have quite negative consequences.

Most of our psychic traffic involves conflicts.  These conflicts can be resolved, and in many cases our dreams point to the resolution.  It seems a matter of regularity that our dreams deal with these psychic conflicts.  Sometimes they simply represent the matter symbolically; our conscious minds would then have the opportunity to take heed (we cannot tell whether it is the explicit purpose of the dream to symbolically present the psychic state of affairs to the conscious.  However, we know from experience when such presentations happen, the conscious mind can try to understand them and thereby reap the benefits of insight.  Perhaps we may speak of an evolutionary adaptive purpose there). The dream might also be the brain’s attempt to heal the conflict, at least temporarily.  The conflict is always played out in the currency of emotions.  Deep, hot, gushing emotions are always involved.

We can repeat the example of the battle of the hero with the dragon, and the subsequent liberation of the young maiden.  The dragon represents all that is terrifying and “questionable in existence” to used a phrase by Nietzsche.  Where does this terror, this threat of melancholy and psychic death, come from?  From elements in the environment.  It comes from war, strife, disease, poverty, enmity, and fear of maladaptation.  But these elements affect the psyche, and the psyche reproduces them and creates psychic monsters and bogeymen out of them.  That is not to say that these fears are not real; it is only to say the psyche may exaggerate them considerably, or attenuate them considerably, giving them a completely different feeling-tone.  Why the psyche does this, we do not yet know, as far as I can tell.  This psychic transformation is the source of a great deal of myth, legend, art, and music.  In it lies the birth of tragedy among the Greeks, as Nietzsche saw it.  But it is our dilemma that we easily imagine a human-like, intelligent creature that does not psychically transform environmental dangers into inner serpents and monsters.  We can imagine a cold, calculating humanoid, which clear-headedly and unemotionally calculates its gains and losses; it does so when it chooses a mate, chooses a friend (or an enemy), decides whether to raise a child or let it die, or even when it decides when itself should die.  Animals in nature unconsciously make such decisions all the time.  But it seems that we humans have been “humanized”, realizing as we did that others have feelings and emotions, that others too suffer, and that realization has kept us relatively civilized up until now (with a very large number of exceptions, of course).

To reprise our example, the hero, battling against the dark psychic forces, must make a decision:  either to fight on, or to surrender.  Fight on for what?  For sanity, mental stability, psychic harmony, and maturity.  In Jungian terms, the first step towards individuation.  And what would he surrender to?  Fear, melancholy, depression, and ultimately dissolution in the form of a psychic or physical death (a form of the death-drive, as Freud would have it).  That is why we find than many melancholy artists died early or prematurely, and why many of them decided to take their own lives.  We find that spectacular example of dissolution, the death-drive and oneness with nature:  Nietzsche.  He went mad, and stayed so for 10 years before his physical death.  What kind of madness causes the sufferer to be completely cut-off from the world, to live in a shell of his own, for 10 years?  And Nietzsche himself anticipated this psychic death:  in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra tells a fallen rope-dancer that “your soul will be dead sooner than your body”. 

So our hero goes on and battles the dragon:  the dragon of melancholy, and ultimately psychic death.  And he wins.  That is the form of the myth that we favor and that we find satisfying, even as children.  But in other stories, he does not win.  He goes down, and thus dies, or goes mad, or is obscenely punished by the gods.  We discover Oedipus for example, who instead of coming to terms with the psychic forces of fear and oppression, is done in by them.  The result is physical collapse and a true going-blind.  But when the hero defeats the fear, the ignorance, the threat of insanity, what does he gain?  A pure virgin.  His opposite, a new and fresh insight into life.  His combines with his opposite, a true coniunctio as was pointed out by Jung, and thereby is mature, strong, upright, and immune to psychic infections.  That is the path to individuation.


The conflicting and opposing psychic forces always seek equilibrium.  Therefore myths represent the state of equilibrium that results when the opposing forces are balanced and reconciled.  Sometimes there is no equilibrium, and that leads to permanent destruction, or to a temporary defeat followed by a long-awaited resurrection.

The Egyptian mythological figure Osiris was dismembered in the most bloody way.  He represents the temporary defeat of the decent, clear-headed and free-spirited ego.  We could also say the defeat of sanity, or intelligence, of an eyes wide-open attitude.  His death is a temporary set-back for the psychic forces that would minister to our wholeness and rootedness in reality; for a mature, wise understanding of the world and its conflicting elements.   His opposite, the feminine element, characteristically steps in and saves the day.  She reconstitutes him and then merges with him.  Psychologically, this represents the discovery, initial resistance, and subsequent conciliation with the opposite sex in the external world, in the form of mother, sister, wife, daughter, and more recently, co-worker.  It is the process of the conciliation of a man with his feminine elements, comprising, in the initial immature stage, weakness of will and character, excessive sentimentality, labile emotions, irrationalism, daydreaming, unrealisticness, melancholic moods, and other essentially negative tendencies.   The union with the feminine, followed to its healthy conclusion, will lead to an understanding of these negative unconscious traits, and thus the feminine will cease to be the misunderstood and despised opposite, becoming a source of mature spirituality and stability, a wider and riper understanding of self and world.  A woman, similarly, must contend in the initial stages of development with a negative image of man.  He is to her filthy, unreliable, boyish, prone to betrayal.  Also, excessively knit-picking, pseudo-intellectual, a Mr. Know-it-All, a hopeless dreamer, impractical, not a ‘real man’.  Eventually, as woman comes to terms with the external, and also internal partner, the the masculine image is elevated and becomes increasingly positive:  strong, intelligent, practical, to-the-point, intellectually and physically courageous, sublime  and spiritually noble.


All psychic transactions are based on the relationship between two agents, often the conscious ego and an unconscious elements, either singly or en bloc.  These transactions are an ongoing story of tension, conflict, and eventual resolution, either in harmony or complete estrangement.

According to one interpretation, the birth of tragedy chez Nietzsche was nothing but the attempt of the Greeks, apparently successful, to deal with their melancholy and depression, born of a high sensitivity and low pain-threshold.  Although Nietzsche views Greek tragedy as essential an expression of the joy of becoming and the will to power, we can also view it as characteristic of mythological solutions that the Greeks triumphed over the threat of melancholic dissolution through an enactment.  The tragedy embodied the pain of existence, but vitally, it also presented the  resolution  these threats and the ecstatic will to life and results therefrom.  The inception tragedy was typically a story of psychic conflict: between the demonic forces of inner darkness and melancholy on the one side, and the rational human forces of sanity and clear-headedness on the other.  And as always, the mature resolution of this conflict does not come about as a result of conquest, or the overpowering of one side by the other, but rather as a result of a true coming-to-terms, a genuine rapprochement


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