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Posts Tagged ‘soul’

With the going of the light, and the fast fading memory of summer’s ease, Black Dog comes stalking once again. We toss him a stick, some stupid novelty or other, which he returns sodden and chewed beyond attraction. Thus, after a couple of turns, we are no longer minded to pick it up, so there he curls, our unshakeable friend, creeping ever closer until he’s in our lap, weighting down all possibility of forward movement.

Words fail in our throats, people look strange, look also strangely at us as we sink into paranoia at the apparent indifference, even of our loved ones. In pettiness, we withdraw, lose empathy, and equanimity as we huddle in imaginary self defence. We become then the worst of ourselves, favouring the lonely places, or the indoors, the impersonal, the pointless flicking at our phones,  the mindless digestion of the indigestible, the foolish, and the vain.

The soundtrack to our lives deepens to despair as Gorecki displaces once more the Red Priest from the player. A symphony of sorrowful songs de-tunes the cellos from their once ravishing Baroque concertos, splits the lustrous age-old wood, breaks the bows, shape-shifts rosin into a cold slime, and bends the dead strings into the intersecting snail-trails of man’s infinite inhumanity.

The filters of filth fail us, and we are overwhelmed by the madness of the world again, no longer able to blind-eye its deep vales of deceit, its mountains of depravity. And we see the leaders naked, as they truly are perhaps, lost or mad or utterly grotesque, letting loose their policemen, black-armoured cockroach armies to hammer blood from dissent.

Black Dog, your visions are cruel, rendered bearable only by the numbing fragrance of your breath. You are the rot of crushed leaves, the rot of wood dissolved to crumb by cringe-legged beetling lice, you are the perennial black mould on the wallpaper above my desk, you are the scratching in the night, and the sinister rustling of an infestation of mice.

We brush down our books in vain, our books of dreams, of alchemy, of transcendentalism, yet, once treasured, we find them mould-stained and dusty, and scented of you, taking with them the key to the only escape we knew, to the vast labyrinth of the esoteric. Now there is only the unsoftened day ahead, each to be taken in its turn. Thus we answer each half-lit morn the alarm clock’s shrill call, rise, stretch our stiffening limbs, pee out our aching bladder.

Is this really the only way? But what of those moments when we shook you from our lap and soared? Those days we rattled the high roads while the beatific sun beat down and tanned our faces? Where were you then? Or the glad beach-days with the soft sand and the multitudinous shades of ocean blue? Or coffee, and company, and that gentle hand to hold? Where were you then?

But these are earthly things for sure and transient as mist, the meagre sticks we toss, then you’ll chase and allow us a moment to breathe. What we seek now is the secret of another kind of cultivation, and the ability to cast it an infinite distance away.

Then go,… Fetch!

Damn you.

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souls-codeDr James Hillman (1926-2011) was a renowned post-Jungian analyst, depth psychologist and latter day guru of the human development movement. His books offer ideas that draw on early Western (Greek) philosophy and mythology. If we want to understand, to accommodate and direct the forces of the psyche, says Hillman, then we do well to think on what the Greeks wrote about their gods.

I find him difficult, but if one perseveres bits of him stick. In the Soul’s Code he tells us about Plato’s myth of Er, part of his magnum opus, The Republic, in which we are acquainted with the idea of a personal Daemon, an internal, psychical companion who carries the map of our lives, according to a plan laid down before our birth.  Our future then, according to this myth, is not determined so much by the environment we are born into as by a kernel of potential, like an acorn, that will grow into what it was meant to be regardless of any adversity we face in life, or possibly even because of it.

Our task in life is to live out the potential of the acorn, to allow it to grow down from the fertile earth of the deep psyche into the blossom of material realisation through the physical entity that we are. But the Daemon also has the power to bend and shape events to suit the attainment of its ambition for us. So,… we miss the bus, the car gets a flat tyre, we miss the crucial meeting, we lose our job; seen from the Ego’s perspective as personal disasters, such upsets can now be re-interpreted as part of a grander plan, releasing us to pursue another path, one closer to what the Daemon has intended for us. It’s a catch-all – so even the bad hand we are dealt can be greeted with a philosophical acquiescence. It was simply meant to be.

But we can also resist the daemon, resist the call, run capriciously and contrary to the Daemon’s aim. When this happens though, we will at some point feel resistance, feel a gnawing dissatisfaction with our lives and our tireless wants. Persist long enough in a contrary direction and the Daemon will make us ill, or even kill us off altogether, write us off as a bad job, and start afresh.

To realise the Daemon’s plan is to live the life we were intended. The challenge though is divining what it is the Daemon wants for us, and knowing if we’re on the path or not. Personal happiness is not the key, for many who have lived Daemon haunted lives do not end their lives well. Their achievements may stand out, make history, save lives, bring comfort to millions, while their own lives end in apparent ruin and ignominy.

What I find confusing about The Soul’s Code is Hillman’s use of remarkable lives as illustrations of the Daemon at work. He does this, he says, to magnify the phenomenon, to render it visible to analysis but, though he tells us the Daemon is at work in all our lives, the temptation at a first reading is to conclude only those names lit up by fame have listened well enough, and the rest of us are losers.

I’m sure this isn’t what Hillman is saying, or maybe it is. I find much in him that’s contradictory, elusive, beguilingly and beautifully poetic, rather like the psyche itself: alluring, intangible, ambiguous, shape-shifting. There are no firm handles, no answers, nothing to gain purchase, nothing one can test by putting into practice, no ten step plan for contacting your Daemon and realising your full potential. He is the dream to be interpreted, and like the all dreams perhaps not taken too literally.

I’m not unsympathetic to the idea of a personal Daemon. Indeed I think I met mine once, during a brief, spontaneous moment of transcendence, when I recognised myself as being interconnected with everything. Everywhere I looked, there I was. And the Daemon was there, felt, rather than seen, a formless presence reminding me, wordlessly, that as remarkable and unlikely as this vision of seemed, I had always known it to be the truth, but had forgotten it. I had drunk, as Hillman might have quoted, from Greek Myth, from the waters of the Lethe.

But the puzzle for all of us is what I feel Hillman did not address in any depth, and I’d hoped he would – this being the sense of our own importance, our own mission, which is at complete odds with the reality of a small speck of life played out in an infinite, cold and unfeeling universe. In company with our Daemon we feel how interconnected we are with world, that man and world cannot not be said to exist at all in isolation from the other. But in my case, my awareness underlined how much this was, my universe, my journey, that the Daemon and I are alone in working towards our purpose, no matter how insignificant a thing that might appear to be on paper. The Daemon is the captain of my vessel, while my ego-self, the thing I think of as me, is more the sole deckhand, as we sail the tempestuous seas of fate and mischance.

But where does this leave you?

In the working out of my journey are you merely the personification of my own fate and mischance, to be used by my captain as an object lesson – friends, lovers, family,… ill or well met, the whole damned lot of you? And how about the man who talks to himself on the bus, and whom I’d rather avoid? Is he a God in disguise, come to test my own godliness, my own compassion? Are you all merely the humours and the godlings come to test and steer, as in those old Greek stories.

Are you not really there at all?

Perhaps I should have listened more to those Greek myths as a child, for as Hillman teaches, there’s probably many a metaphorical clue in there I’ve missed that would be of help to me now. But the Greeks, like Hillman are not exactly an easy read, and diligence seems rewarded with only more questions, while the answers, far from clear, seem lacking altogether.

Or I could just leave it to the Daemon, and hope I’m on the right path anyway. Then none of it matters and the acorn of my life will, out in spite of all my protestations to the contrary.

I leave you with a taste of the late great, Dr James Hillman (1926-2011):

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snowyIt’s been a curiously unsettling week. Twice my commute home was disrupted by serious accidents and motorway closures, turning a thirty five minute journey into an hour and a half marathon, where the normal free flow of things was choked off at every turn, blocked, impeded, restricted, stymied. On the last of these occasions, having finally made it home, exhausted, I left the car on the driveway and set off across the village on foot to get my hair cut, but the ginnel I normally use was blocked, the path being dug up, the way impeded, restricted,… the alternative, a long detour.

I returned home and did not move from the house again until I had slept long and deep.

And in my sleep I dreamed of road closures, of blockage, of the wreckage of trains and vehicles piled high into monuments of destruction. Thus in its own way the universe reflects my inner feelings, feelings of being stymied at every turn, at my lack of progress in terms of psychological and emotional development, my confusion – one path after another blocked, the wreckage of false hope and dreams piled high

The ego will make way at all costs, even if it ends up going only in circles.

And yes I’ve begun dreaming again, unbidden, and  vividly. I used to remember my dreams most nights and write them down in the mornings. It was a Jungian thing, interesting in the early days of my initiation into the way of the soul, but I was too much in earnest in my search for meaning, and those dreams, so lovingly recorded, remain to this day enigmatically opaque. Then for a long time I have not recalled any dreams at all – except suddenly this week I am dreaming vast landscapes, and vivid encounters with archetypal characters. Nor am I making any effort to recall them, yet they remain burned into memory, their feeling tones equally vivid and not a little disturbing.

Then there are the coincidences, trivial things yet astonishing in their persistence and their infuriating meaninglessness: I saw a dog on Instagram, a cute little fox terrier, and though I have never desired to keep a dog in my life, I was suddenly taken by the desire to keep one like that, and I would call him Snowy. Then within the hour I was watching a snippet from a banal TV game show, and the question was: what was the name of Tin Tin’s dog? Answer of course: Snowy.

Such things are only a coincidence if they happen once, but when they cluster they speak to me of other things, of something shifting, a curtain opening, the normal laws of time and space blurring at the edges. I am turning in of a night now expecting to dream next a mystical revelation. Except, I know from past experience this is not how it works. Stability will return, the old ways will open up again, the old grooves. I am left thinking I miss my turn each time, that I fail to grasp the symbolic significance of a motorway closure or even of a cute little dog called Snowy.

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Hartsop old wayThursday evening, came home from work early. Long weekend in the offing, glad to have nailed it after a pig of a week. Walked in, looking forward to savouring every moment, only to find my Broadband router showing a stack of red lights instead of the usual blue. Everyone is glum. No internet. Looks like a call to BT, except I need to go on-line to get the number.

Ah,… right.

So I burn a few precious minutes of 3G data on my phone. Number in hand I call the help-line. I’m connected to India in a matter of seconds. I’m half an hour on the line, and across five thousand miles they’re testing my line, testing the router. What a marvellous thing it is we have invented, this global computer. Or is it?

What devices do I hook up to, sir? Couple of laptops, several tablet devices, iPods, phones, a couple of  Playstations,… I realise the list is endless, and this surprises me. My entire life has moved on-line.

Test results inconclusive! They need to send an engineer to poke about with a screwdriver, to tug at the wires, to test the physicality  of my connection. How about next Tuesday? What? That’s nearly a week! How am I supposed to manage a week without internet? I don’t say this to the guy in India of course – he’s doing his best. My heart quaking, I just say okay.

There’s a pall of silence when I end the call. Tuesday? We’ll have to manage until Tuesday! We are a family of four, and I am not alone in my total dependence on the world wide web for passing the time, for entertainment, for education, for news, for pseudo-nourishment, for information,…

When did this happen? At what point did so much of my life begin pointing in at this window? When did so much of my life become aimed at shaping an imaginary world online, of adding to to the info-glut of words and pictures and video, writing a blog, writing fiction, playing MYST? Dammit, I’d been looking forward to chilling out for a couple of days doing nothing but playing MYST!

So,… nothing for it then. No Internet. For days and days and days.

What now?

Well, what did I used to do? Sits down to think? Write! There was always the writing, sure and most of that ending up double spaced on A4, either in the post or in my bottom drawer when I’d given up on it. I used to draw too, and paint,… I used to read – and I mean PAPER books.

So I pick up a PAPER book I’ve had since it came out in 2012 – Macfarlane’s “The Old Ways”. I’d begun the book enthusiastically, but left off a few chapters in, not because I found the book dull, but because my head is always being lured back inside the online world. And the lure is strong. But in the space of a few minutes I reconnected with the book as Macfarlane took me a walk along the Broomway, off the coast of Essex. Then he took me up to the Western Isles, to Harris, then a sail into the Atlantic in an ancient open sailboat, to a tiny speck of the British Isles that doesn’t always make it onto the maps – North Rona. This is a voyage with a salty crew who know their way around the old sea roads. I spend a night on an uninhabited island in the Minch, belly warmed by good company and fiery malt, and I meet characters who still speak the stories of place, of physical places, places I touched once, a quarter century ago when I passed this way myself and which lit up my life in ways unexpected.

A few summers and a lifetime of memory.

And I remembered my old novel, the pre internet “Singing Loch”, which was about how I felt the land die whenever the old stories were lost, ripped up, forgotten, concreted over, and how the world descended then into a kind of grey. I remember how I’d once burned with the lust of the old ways, and believed with all my heart it was important we kept a spiritual tryst with the land. Then I remembered the books of Patrick Harpur, and again the tales from the mysterious north, the lore of the Norse and the Celt, of the spirits of place and of the mysterious Shee, whom only the Irish, full blood or part descended have the eye to see. And all of this is important because, although the stories are in our minds, we meet them in the land, because the land is where we are supposed to be, and when we honour it on bended knee, the spirit of it comes to guide our way.

And then I’m looking at my father’s old maps – crumbly and curly now – Ordnance Surveys of the West Pennine Moors, six inches to the mile, mapped in the 1840’s. There are marks on the map, old ways we once walked together, and the broad arrow benchmarks we came upon upon chiselled in stone by the sapper men upon the peaty moor – days of mist when the whole world was a figment of imagination, and summer days when the larks were aloft and time stood still.

And then, as I slept the shee were whispering in my ear what I knew already, that the Broadband Router is fried, and that’s all a week’s wait for the BT guy will tell me. Inscrutable race, the Shee – wise, curious, sometimes mischievous, sometimes helpful even in their misdirection. So then I’m off to Tesco at dawn break for a new router. £50 and I’m plugging it in. Blue light is on, and we’re back online,…

But I’m not sure this is a good thing any more. Maps, books,… memories of walks, of the old ways, set aside, forgotten again. For a moment last night, the spirit of the old days, the old ways crept back in at the door, and Shee had begun to look over my shoulder, guide my hand, my heart, my mind,…

But there are no spirits of place in here, no old ways to be explored. It is a place where the Shee do not venture for old things are like as not simply deleted. There is no archaeology on the Internet, no myth, no folklore. It is a dead place! What do they mean opening this portal again and pushing me back in? I write this piece after playing MYST till my eyes bleed. I tag, I click, I post,…

What is the internet for?

And is it friend of foe?


					

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keys

“Master, when will you teach me?”
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes.”
“Then go wash your bowl.”

Presence is inner space. It is stillness. It is making room inside ourselves for the primary essence to return to conscious awareness. Without presence, our lives are dominated by our thoughts and our memories, and we mistake them entirely for who we think we are. Only when we still the mind, when we rise above the flow of thought and memory, do we invite presence and reconnect with the authentic self.

So, try this for a moment:

Sit down. Take a deep breath. Focus. Don’t reminisce, don’t anticipate the future. Narrow your sights to the present moment, and above all STOP THINKING! Do it now.

Did it work?

No.

It’s impossible to stop thinking. And anyway, we have to live, to work, to take care of our families, get through college, pass exams, fix the car. Try doing any of that without thinking! It seems “presence” is not only a difficult thing to attain, it’s also impractical and unhelpful in our everyday lives. So, do we live as we should, or do we retreat to a cave and nurture presence instead?

Actually, presence is helpful and practical; it’s just a question of how we get there. If we can somehow create that space within ourselves, we can move beyond our thoughts, rest in spaciousness, and from there recognise our thoughts for what they are: mostly imposters and prophets of false doom. We think when we need to, but we no longer confuse “thought” with “identity”.

The deliberate cessation of thinking is impossible. Even to attempt it is only going to make matters worse, risking thoughts of self loathing when we inevitably fail. We should think more of “presence” as a state where our thoughts proceed at a more measured pace, and where we no longer find ourselves caught up with their contrived chains of endless urgencies:

We must do this, we must do that, or this won’t happen, and then we won’t get that, so we won’t be able to go there, and so and so won’t like us any more, and then we will be unhappy,…

If we can distance ourselves from the chain of thought, it’s a start. And indeed, if we sit quietly we find it is possible to observe the run of thoughts from a place within ourselves, without actually engaging them. We merely watch their coming and going, without judgement. If we feel our emotions getting hung up on particular thoughts, we press them gently aside. This is a powerful practise, and we find, in time, moments of deeper presence creeping into our lives of their own accord.

“Master, when will you teach me?”
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes.”
“Then go wash your bowl.”

There are many ways to nurture presence and they aren’t that difficult. They require a little imagination, and the cooperation of the ego. But that they require Ego’s indulgence is the reason so few of us make way in this search for presence – egos, being entities comprised entirely of thought, are not naturally inclined towards the cessation of thinking.

Try this instead:

Look at your hands. Now (in a moment) close your eyes. How do you know your hands are still there? Because you can feel them. But what are you feeling? You are feeling the energy of the body. It’s particularly noticeable in the hands. Now breathe in, and very gently out, and breathing out, focus more on the feeling in the hands. The feeling grows stronger. Breath, it seems, can help focus stillness and amplify one’s sense perceptions.

Remember this.

Using the imagination as the vehicle, and the outward breath as the energy to drive it, it’s possible to explore more of the body this way. Thus, we discover similar feelings in our arms and our chest. The region around the heart and the lower abdomen also respond strongly to the caress of breath-assisted imagination. The more we practice, the stronger and more readily these feelings come to us. And at some point, while we’re doing all of this we realise we’ve not been thinking about anything for a while. We have become still, we have become more “present” in the body, and we feel calmer. This is a very effective practice on the road to presence.

But there’s more.

When we become familiar with this feeling of centred calm, secure within the body, we begin to see and feel the outer world differently too. I’m looking at my keys – familiar things – but I realise I hardly ever truly see them, because the mind is not interested in them as they actually are. It labels them “keys” and moves on because it has so many other things to think about.

But, observed in stillness, a deeper dimension is revealed to my keys – the shape, the colours, the myriad indentations, the fall of light upon them, the reflections, the highlights. Be warned though: the mind may have trouble here as thinking tries to reassert itself. We might try to think about the keys: What doors do they open? This one is looking worn out and maybe I should replace it; I wonder if the battery is okay in my little torch thingy. Should I test it?

We cannot observe in stillness while we are engaged in thought. Thoughts are like stones tossed into the lake, breaking up its morning stillness. In stillness we accept only sense perceptions as they come to us – here primarily our vision, but we can also bring the ears, the nose and the sense of touch into play. But however we observe the outer world, we simply let it be, without analysis or judgement. We sense the world without thinking about it and if we’re doing it right, the feeling that arises is one of calm alertness.

Experienced on a larger scale, say in the outdoors, in the natural world, observing without judgement the tremble of every leaf and every blade of grass, this feeling of presence can be very powerful indeed, but as the lesson of the keys reveals, it can also be experienced in the minutiae we oftentimes simply overlook. And the observations need not be of static things. We can observe movement just as dispassionately and discover the stillness in it (stillness in movement) It can be experienced even in those things that we might consider a chore – ironing clothes, clearing out the garage, mowing the grass,… or washing the pots.

Master, when will you teach me?
Have you eaten?
Yes.
Then go wash your bowl.

Perhaps we should be more willing to embrace those mindless tasks for what they have to teach us.

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The_ScreamThe question the soul asks is this: why do some aspects of my life make me happy, while others make me suffer? Then we add the corollaries: number one: why is happiness so elusive, yet the potential for suffering so abundant? Second: how do I nurture more happiness and keep the suffering to a minimum?

The first corollary is concerned with philosophy and metaphysics: what is suffering? The second is more concerned with the practicalities of every day living: How do I make the suffering stop? How do I feel good about myself, about others and my place in the world?

The nature of suffering is a complicated thing; a good deal of Buddhism is devoted to its study, so I’m never going to boil it down to a thousand words. It can however, be usefully personified as an entity, one we imagine living inside of us. The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls it the pain body. This is just a way of thinking, you understand. The pain body is not an evil spirit, nor an autonomous being – though it can behave like one; it’s just a very primitive part of who we are, and it loves to suffer. And where there is no suffering, the pain body is adept at creating it for us.

It’s hard to believe anyone would choose suffering as a way of life, but many of us do – not consciously of course, but more by misunderstanding the dominance of the pain body in our lives. Unchecked, the pain body grows and dictates our responses to more and more of life’s situations. But all is not lost; to shine a light on the pain body is also to shrink it. And a world observed without the presence of the pain body, is a very different world indeed.

One of the most powerful tools in this respect is nurturing “presence” in our lives. This is a very simple concept, but since the way of the soul is also one of infinite paradox, it can at the same time be rather a difficult concept to grasp, instinctively. As a first step we try to attain an awareness of our essential “self”. If we can do this, then all other things follow more easily. The “essential self” is not a vague new agey term. It means what it sounds like: it is the being we are, unhampered by all the thoughts and emotions. It is what lies underneath the storm tossed psyche. It is the very essence of who we are.

When we sit quietly, our mind fills with thoughts, some good, some bad. We might remember with fondness the good things, or we might feel something akin to physical pain at the memory of the bad. We might be fearful of upcoming events, things that worry us, or we might be looking forward to things we hope will make us happy.

If we try, we can sometimes rise above this stream of thought. The thoughts are still there, but we can now observe their coming and going without engaging with them, emotionally. We simply let them be. But if we think about it: in order for us to be aware of our thoughts, there must be an awareness beyond our thoughts, just as there can be no ripples on the surface of the lake without the water to carry them. So, are we the ripples or the water? What is this awareness that is aware of our thoughts?

Since we are most of us entirely identified with our thoughts and our memories, it can be difficult to imagine there is anything else beyond them. If we try to imagine it, we imagine it might be another way of thinking, but it isn’t. Primary awareness, the awareness of our essential self, is a place of deep stillness from where we can observe our lives without judgement, or thinking. We take the input from our senses, and make no comment. We let whatever is, simply be. It’s from this place, we get to observe the pain body at work, both in ourselves and others.

Do you know someone who never has a positive thing to say? Do you never feel positive yourself about anything? Are you a glass half empty person, or a glass half full? You might think it’s not your fault, that it is because of the insensitivity, the stupidity, or the downright cruelty of others that you suffer, or that you are somehow so “unlucky” circumstances seem always fated to thwart your happiness. But two people can be presented with the same life-situation, and see it entirely differently – one negative, one positive – and the difference is entirely a state of mind. It is the lack or presence of an active pain body.

Attaining presence we create a space in which we can observe, consciously, both ourselves and others, and it is from this enhanced perspective we can tell when pain bodies are active. The curious thing is, when we identify our own pain body, it shrinks back into the shadows. When we are aware of pain bodies awakening in others the important thing is to avoid them activating our own pain body, for pain bodies each know their kind and are most at home in one another’s company where they can feed upon the mutual suffering they whip up between them.

The pain body is responsible for much personal suffering and, through our relations with others, it is also responsible for much of the damage we do to them and them to us. Happiness is therefore a life lived without the pain body, but it requires us first to raise our self awareness beyond the level of the ego, or we might not even know of the the pain body’s existence. We mistake its painful emotional reactions as our own , and nurturing presence in our selves is the key to realising they are not.

But that’s my thousand words.

I’ll explore more on the subject of nurturing presence some other time.

Here’s more on the pain body.

And here’s Eckhart Tolle with the last word:

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pygmalion cycleThere was an article on the radio this morning saying that girls as young as 14 are now having cosmetic surgery in order to boost their self esteem. I find myself wondering about what model of so called bodily perfection they are comparing themselves with at so young an age but I suspect I need look no further than the nearest glossy magazine, or a pop video on you-tube. I’m also wondering if us guys are at fault for having too narrow a definition of what the ideal female should look like, and being too immature in our regurgitation of that stereotype across these various media. It’s more complex than that of course, as the editors of magazines read by young women tend to be themselves young women, but there’s definitely something in the machine that’s driven by the myth of male desire.

I keep returning to the story of Pygmalion – not the musical thing with Rex Harrison, but the original myth of the sculptor who ignored women as they really were, in favour of chiseling out his ideal in the shape of his muse, the heavenly Galatea. In some versions of this myth, Pygmalion falls in love with his creation, and the goddess, Aphrodite, taking pity on the guy, has Galatea come to life and fall in love with him. Thus the myth concludes, Hollywood fashion, in happy-ever-after style. But myths have layers to them, and the myth of Pygmalion can be peeled back to reveal something much darker and which I think helps to shine some light on the calamitous objectification of women.

In the darker myth, Pygmalion is a fool in thrall to the idealised form of his own soul-image, to the extent that he rejects the human reality – reality being the natural variety in the form of the human female, and he rejects it because he finds it imperfect. There’s nothing innocent about this foolishness. Pygmalion knows exactly what he’s doing, and what he wants; he’s a material man, imposing his misguided rules of measure upon the female body. With his rule, he measures out the proportions, and with his chisel he gives form to the awesomely beautiful creature, Galatea. But that Aphrodite then grants Pygmalion his wish, that Galatea should come alive, is not a blessing – it is Aphrodite’s curse, and her most severe punishment for Pygmalion’s stupidity.

Aphrodite, being goddess of love, beauty and procreation, knows a thing or two about relationships; she can see where Pygmalion is heading, and is offended by his rejection of her sisters in flesh, so she gives him a good shove to get him going in the direction of his misguided desires. The shape of physical womanhood that comes to life in Galatea may conform to the mythical ideal, but her expression is disturbingly blank because she has no soul. And she has no soul because she lacks the thing Pygmalion is least interested in: her humanness. Aphrodite has set him up with a robot.

Pygmalion may think he knows what he wants, shunning the awkward fleshly diversity of the human female in favour of the statuesque Galatea, but his quest has led him into an empty place, one of soulless, mechanical rumpy pumpy, a place where you just know he’s going to die a lonely and unfulfilled old man.

The Pre Raphaelite artist Burne Jones captures this story in a series of paintings which hang in the Birmingham city gallery, images that have haunted me for a long time. Looking at his depiction of Galatea we are also reminded of how much the “ideal” in feminine proportion has changed. The “hot babe” of the Victorian era was apparently smaller chested and fuller hipped than she would be allowed get away with now. She’s also significantly more “nude” without her modern splattering of tattoos. She would not pass muster in the lad mags of today, except as an unfortunate example of that most appalling fashion faux-pas: the wrongly proportioned woman.

The latter day Pygmalion, sculptor of the female form, lives on in the machinery of “emotive images” – the print media, the movie industry, and that black-sheep, rarely talked about in polite circles, but of tremendous influence: the porn industry. These are the sculptors responsible for dictating the shape of the women that men are supposed to want to have sex with, all in spite of the protestations of Aphrodite. This works both ways then; the damage of faulty thinking is inflicted not only on women but on men too. Pygmalion, in modern guise, is telling women that unless they fit the mythical contemporary pattern of size, shape and weight, men will not find them attractive, and is telling men that unless they achieve the prize of congress with that Galatean robot, he’s a worthless loser with the street credibility of a squashed gnat.

How do we stop the girls from making themselves ill, worrying over their weight, and the size of their boobs? And how do we convince the guys they may just be passing up on the perfect relationship by not even second glancing a woman, because she looks nothing like what he’s seen on the cover of a glossy magazine? It’s a complex business, one that plumbs the depths of the human psyche, and of course there are no easy answers. But at some point a guy has to wake up and realise the look in a woman’s eye when she looks at him is of far more significance than her cup size. And a girl has to realise that a guy who pulls a face at her muffin-top really isn’t the sort of guy worth hanging around with. It’s just a pity the machinery of image has become so dumb, so all pervasive, and there’s something in us that renders all of us so vulnerable to it.

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