By Wael Al-Mahdi (2011)
“There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” –Albert Camus
Here’s a maddening thought: as we speak, there are obscure psychological processes going on in your mind the nature of which is completely mysterious to you. In our age of scientific certainty, this is what is most irritating about the unconscious: we start from a position of profound ignorance, we don’t know what approach to take, and more often than not we’re completely in the dark as to its workings.
Even its name is negative. All our scientific striving aims for a ever sharper focus on the specifics of knowledge, and yet we define a great deal of what goes on in our own minds by what we don’t know. But the interesting question, and this is a question rightly rich in embedded clauses, is: how do we know that what we don’t know constitutes the unconscious, provided that we didn’t know it in the first place? The answer lies in those intensely satisfying Eureka! moments that accompany the sudden emergence of a well-constituted piece of insight in our minds. We know that the unconscious is largely unknown to us precisely because of the parts of it that become known in our experience. Oftentimes it feels as if something awesomely influential has emerged, that something complete and put-together, has made itself known on our mental scene, and we are right to exclaim: I didn’t know this existed!
We see instances of the unmasking of unconscious elements whenever we go through a tough challenge and discover the unknown flaw in our reasoning that was keeping us back, or whenever we discover an insight that radically reconstitutes our relationships with ourselves and others. All of our science, scholarship, self-introspection and therapy goes towards culling redeeming insights. Sometimes a whole life-time is dedicated towards discovering the jewel of grace buried deep in the unconscious, a ‘thing’ whose experiential truth corresponds of the stone of the philosophers.
And yet, for the majority of sensitive types, the problem of the inscrutableness of the unconscious lingers on. Our issue with the unconscious is that even when we have discovered the how, we often have no idea as to the why. The unconscious being an essentially negative influence in our lives, it floods us with vague agonies and moods. In the womb of the darkest nights, as in the explosion of the most beautiful colors of dawn, we are forced to carry our cross of suffering, the kind of suffering that is compounded many times over by ignorance. Our very soul writhes in obscure suffering; unconscious, unknown factors, seem intent on invading the profundity of our being. We can’t even be justified in our suffering by society, since the only suffering society recognizes is the visible kind, that kind that comes from disease, accidents, financial hardship, etc. But sufferers of the soul are misunderstood and are labeled ‘whiners.’ A person who has never experienced that we are discussing here can never even remotely imagine what a soul-sufferer goes through, and yet might have the arrogance to comment on what he doesn’t understand.
Men and women who have experienced what it means to suffer from soul-sickness will testify – perhaps not always publically but in reverent whispers to long-seeking initiates – to the terribleness of having one’s soul crushed, burned, thrown from a mountaintop, hanged from an evil tree; the exquisite agony of being dragged down to the depths of the unconscious, depths that are a thousand times more horrible than any natural pit. And since we understand that the greatest pain can be coupled with the greatest pleasure, this morbidity of soul can be turned into the myth of one’s life. Great sufferers understand the esoteric secret of the worm that burrows deep in a man’s heart, and we often find them reveling in the very fact of their extreme pain. This warrants no surprise, since we are in a region where opposites are crushed together by the enormous pressure of the life force and where the workaday world of inane office memos and absurd stationery and ash-tasting sandwiches is but a vague half-dream.
Nietzsche has rightly recognized all this as a divine spectacle appreciable only by the gods. But isn’t this spectacle a little cartoonish too? I say this since in all probability, the soul-sufferer doesn’t end up dying. Whatever you do to him, like a unstoppable cartoon character he still carries on. And he will probably not object to this cartoonish characterization, since the world can appear even more absurd than a cartoon. The suffering man might, occasionally, decide that the combination of absurdity and spiritual suffering are too much for him and commit suicide, but these cases only take center-stage because of the exceptionality of suicide. Despite his predicament, the sufferer is acutely aware that he is defined by his suffering, but in the meantime he distracts himself with the daily details of life, thankful for the momentary lapse of awareness that the ‘colored vapors’ of life’s dramas, in Nietzsche’s words, afford him. No, my friend, most soul-sufferers don’t take their own lives, for a simple reason: the very consciousness with which they recognize their exceptional suffering gives them an extraordinary hope that all will be well. They know full-well that as humans they have this weapon at this side: the incisive power of awareness.
Awareness is not an instant catalyst. That is, directing awareness at the suffering in all its complexity will not instantly dissolve it. No; awareness itself is as complex, variegated, and multi-faceted as the absurd suffering it faces. And what suffering are we talking about! Without risking undue exaggeration I could say that this suffering was the most complex thing in the world. It has shape, color and contours. It has a history, a history so strange it can warp one’s mind. Its roots run deep into the human soul, into the animal soul before it became human, into the soul of the dark earth. Earth, and hair, blood, bones, and the remains of animals that lived and died in utterly unhuman times. Every victim of nature’s indifference, every stillborn animal and every discarded placenta feed into this shapely suffering.
The suffering treats the soul with fire. But awareness rises to the occasion. It accepts the fire, embraces it. This is the awareness of the self-standing man and woman. This complex awareness, the one that moulds itself and creeps deep into the pores and channels of the mass of the suffering, is our boon and grace. The saving grace is precisely this, that the genius of suffering has a ‘thousand souls’, as Hesse’s character Harry Haller found in Steppenwolf. And thus the soul-sufferer can rightly claim that he has as much hope in redemption as he has a capacity for suffering. The sufferer doesn’t shrink from this life-long fight. Courageously, at the break of dawn, he faces the suffering head-on, contemplating it calmly, almost without surprise, taking it as a matter of course. It is quite natural, quite in order, thinks the suffering man, that this should be his lot. How can he question his fate? In order to do this he would need the knowledge of a god, and he isn’t even sure that the gods have the answer to this riddle. And when night brazenly steals into his heart like a thief, the suffering man thanks his god that he can sleep soundly while on the edge of disaster.