Gregory Shaw on Peter Kingsley
For a long time, I hesitated to review Catafalque because I knew I could not respond in my accustomed academic way. Beginning with his impeccably researched Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic, Peter Kingsley has explored the experiential core of the great pre-Socratic philosopher-magicians, Parmenides, Empedocles, and Pythagoras in books that are both scholarly and existentially compelling. But they are not simply books “about” these magicians; he does not give us information. He recovers their magic and casts their spells on you; spells that get under your skin, inside your head, and radically rearrange your world. Sometimes it is frightening, exhilarating, and I always feel stimulated by the brilliance of his thinking, the dark humor of his writing, and by insights I hadn’t had before. Catafalque is Kingsley’s best book. It is a prophetic masterpiece that rearranges everything you may have thought about your life, your culture, and your identity. To engage a voice that is primal, archetypal, and as deep as Kingsley’s, one must respond with corresponding primacy and depth. It won’t do to give a rational critique, outlining this or that point of view, and assess Kingsley’s arguments. This could be done, but it would be wholly inadequate because this book is not essentially an argument. It is a howl, a disturbing and painful cry. And if we cannot find its corresponding cry within us, we miss everything.
The focus of Catafalque is Carl Jung, his Red Book, and the end of our world; hence the title, “catafalque,” an elaborate structure that supports a coffin in a funeral, and it is our funeral. This is, without question, a very depressing book. Yet its journey into darkness—and it just gets darker and darker and darker—is, for those who can bear it, an initiation into a world we have long forgotten and which Jung, and now Kingsley, have revealed to us….whether we like it or not.
Kingsley has been tearing down our rational façade for years. In the Dark Places of Wisdom and Reality were also initiatory texts that invited us into depths through exploring the journeys to the underworld of ancient Greek shamans, Pythagoras, Parmenides and Empedocles. Catafalque is far more difficult to read because this time Kingsley’s shaman is not a figure from the ancient world, safely removed from our own. His shaman is Carl Jung, a contemporary with whom therapists, patients, theologians, and scholars identify. This esteemed psychologist, the colleague of Freud, renowned for his study of myth and cultural archetypes, was also psychotic; he went out of his mind. Yet, as one might expect, Jung’s madness for Kingsley is precisely the pharmakon we need to wake us up from the collective nightmare and unrecognized madness in which we live.
Following Kingsley’s earlier work, to get out of this darkness we need to go even darker, to places hidden, even repulsive. We ordinarily protect ourselves from this darkness with rationality and science, or worse, with Jungian psychology. Jungians reassure us that although we may encounter archetypal symbols in dreams, in reveries, or in despair, we know—following the example of the great Swiss psychiatrist—that we can pass through their disorienting influence with our egos intact. We believe that, like Jung, we can peer into the darkness but remain safely tethered to the light of reason. Kingsley tells us in the most powerful and persuasive way that this is a lie. It is, in fact, the lie we live. This is a difficult book to read, and it is clearly his best.
But readers should be warned. Kingsley is a magician whose words beguile us, and like all magicians, the spell he casts on us is one he has already cast on himself. And it is unbearable. So, caveat lector, which is why I feared to write this review, to have my identity stripped, again, to see the incoherence of my world, and yet, having fallen under Kingsley’s spell, my words are a deception as well, for, like many of us, I deeply desire to be undone.
I want to begin with the Red Book, the question of Jung’s sanity, and the challenge this book poses to a therapeutic and scholarly community built around the work of Jung. Kingsley puts it bluntly:
[The Red Book] is a deadly virus, a massive earthquake capable of shaking every rational edifice built up on the work of Jung to the ground . . .. incalculably destructive of all the tricks we use not only for understanding Jung but to understand ourselves. …. The truly frightening thing is that it forces us to view the task of doing science or being a psychologist, with the eyes of a prophet.
As Kingsley unflinchingly shows us, the Red Book lays bare Jung’s journey into what we, in our conventional minds, call madness. And to the degree that Jungians are selling “mental health,” this is the last thing they want us to see. The Red Book is a nightmare for the business of Jungian psychology. So, as Kingsley points out, there has been a good deal of domesticating its more shocking elements, of rationalizing, downplaying how impossible and disturbing it is.
It is one thing to appreciate the rawness and honesty of Jung’s record of descending to the Underworld, it is quite another to take the journey with him. It is the journey of a man tortured, twisted, and stripped of his rational hold on reality. It is a journey into madness that also turns Jung into a divine prophet of god, a divinity. Trying to endure the strangeness of his descent, Jung clings to what we all hope will keep us sane, our knowledge. He appeals to his soul:
But our knowledge? Does our knowledge also not hold good for you? What is it going to be, if not knowledge? Where is security? Where is solid ground? Where is light? Your darkness is not only darker than night but bottomless as well.
In the Red Book, Jung distinguishes the “spirit of the depths” from the “spirit of this time” and these also establish the parameters of his life. Scholarly and scientific knowledge belong to the spirit of this time, but not only are they useless in the depths, they poison and imprison the soul. Yet, the paradox of Jung is that after his passage through the underworld he created a scientific and rational psychology—very much in the spirit of this time—that grew directly out of the spirit of the depths. Jung’s madness was the foundation for his science. There is a mystery here that Kingsley alludes to throughout. Jung, the psychologist and scientist was, in a very real sense, a lie, a deception created to veil his prophetic calling. His “science” hid the fact that he was the prophet of a new religion. Yet, this deception is not a superficial manipulation, a ploy or obfuscation. It is a necessity that reflects the very nature of reality. As Jung put it in a letter to a young scholar:
The language I speak is ambiguous, or two-faced, in order to do justice to the dual aspect of our psychic nature. I constantly and deliberately strive for ambiguity of expression, because it is superior to unequivocalness and more in keeping with the nature of life.
As revealed in ancient myths, philosophy, and by true poets in all ages, the very nature of self-consciousness alienates us, splits us, and our rationality can either exacerbate that split or creatively undo it. Jung found a way through this, but he first had to be freed from the prison of rationality. Jung’s descent into the underworld allowed him to see that incantations have a healing power that no rational technique can offer. After curing a woman of insomnia by singing a lullaby, Jung said, “Enchantment like that is the oldest form of medicine. But it all happened outside my reason” (C. G. Jung Speaking, 1977, 419). The Incantations is a chapter in the Red Book to be sung “in the ancient manner” while holding the God within (RBLV, 298). This is the ancient magic as practiced by theurgists who, like Jung, recognized that the real magic of an incantation was precisely in its unintelligibility. “If it is unknowable to us,” Iamblichus had written, “this very fact is its most sacred aspect: for it is too excellent to be divided into knowledge.” Ancient magicians and Jung knew that rationality was incapable of transforming the soul or uniting us with the divine.
Kingsley explains that Jung emulated these magicians, and his journey through the Underworld followed the path of Pythagoras, Parmenides and Empedocles. Jung translated the terminology of the ancients into “scientific” terms, calling the initiation he realized in the abyss “individuation.” For Jungians today, individuation is the culmination of psychic development, as if it were our collective birthright. Yet Kingsley points out that this notion of individuation is a domestication, commodification, and utter distortion of what Jung experienced. Individuation is not the culmination of the person; it is the end of the person. It is the agonizing struggle of becoming a god and a person simultaneously, of living in contradictory worlds, eternity and time.
Kingsley reveals that although individuation is the quintessential myth of Jung’s psychology, it is almost never experienced because no one can bear it. Individuation is the surrendering of the personal to the impersonal, and precisely what Jung experienced it to be, the death of his personality. Jung explains that individuation is a total mystery; the mystery of the Grail that holds the essence of God. According to Henry Corbin, Jung saw “true individuation as becoming God or God’s secret.” Put simply, individuation is deification. To his credit, over twenty years ago Richard Noll argued this point and wrote that Jung experienced deification in the form of the lion-headed Mithras (Leontocephalus), but Kingsley gives the context for deification that Noll does not, and the context is crucial. He shows that Jung’s deification was not an “ego trip” that gave rise to “a religious cult with [Jung] as the totem,” Noll’s assumption; nor was it a “colossal narcissism,” as Ernest Jones suggested, but precisely the opposite. Individuation cuts to the very core of self-consciousness; it is the annihilation of the ego, not its inflation.
Kingsley is a philosopher, magician and prophet in the same tradition as Jung and the ancient magicians. Catafalque is an extended incantation to liberate us from the rational spell in which we are held. Like all magicians, Kingsley writes deceptively, using rationality, to undermine our habits of rationality. The fact is, our intellectual habit holds all our thoughts at arm’s length. We evaluate all experiences by comparing them to what we already know and what we know is who we are. The problem is thinking itself, our way of being conscious. Rationality, the habit of shaping our experience into coordinated abstractions—while being a remarkable skill—is a skill that has swallowed us up and enslaved us. We have become, Jung laments, “victims of our thinking.” When, in rare moments, we experience something numinous, something outside our thinking, our mental habit finds a way to protect itself. As Kingsley puts it,
The numinous is, very simply, the experience of the impossible in our lives. And that raw impossibility somehow never fits too well into human systems. At the same time, there is no limit to human resourcefulness in escaping the impossible. And this is why, today, whole books are being industriously published by Jungians about the numinous. In fact it’s only too easy to forget that, with a subject as potent and elusive, intelligent discussion is the best possible way of persuading the reality behind the word to disappear. . . Domesticating the gods, taming the numinous by discreetly neutralizing it, has become all the rage (emphasis mine).
Kingsley adds that “Jung, himself, had once called the actual practice of psychotherapy for what it almost always is: ‘a mere expedient, which prevents numinous experiences as much as possible.’” Kingsley’s book is an attempt to unseat the mind itself as we know it, to dethrone our rational monarch and invite us to live in a world where we become servants of the numinous.
Kingsley shares impossible stories and dreams, more like fairy tales than academic research. For example, his discovery of Bollingen as a young man after driving entirely without map or plan, in the dark, and ending up precisely in the heart of Jung’s sanctuary. Or his unbearably painful dream of the destruction of the wild landscape of his ancestral home, “domesticated [into] garden land.” These are a magician’s tricks to capture our attention, tease us out of our habit of rationality, our sense of self, and if we enter these stories, we might see how we have been spellbound. The world and its wild mystery have been domesticated, collapsed into our “explanations” of it. And we evaluate our peers and ourselves on how well-informed such explanations are. To use the words of Parmenides, we have become “deaf, dumb and blind,” hopelessly trapped in a glass cage, a hall of mirrors, like the legendary Merlin who cries out for the soul’s freedom. The cry of Merlin, for both Jung and Kingsley, is the cry of the soul to re-enter the wildness of the world and ourselves. We are slowly dying in our cage and Kingsley invites us to feel this, and to grieve, especially in his concluding chapters. But there are two questions that need to be explored before we reach the end, one that runs throughout the book, and one that touches me personally.
The first question is crucial to this book. Kingsley addresses it throughout: it is the question of ego inflation and how anyone, like Jung or Kingsley himself, wrestles with the sense of being a savior, a guru, a prophet. For this is precisely what Jung faced and what Kingsley faces. That Jung identified with being the servator mundi (the servant or savior of the world), like Christ , will strike most readers as an obvious example of ego inflation. Our unspoken assumption, shaped by our metaphysical materialism, is that the very notion of god or gods is a falsehood. We live in a culture in which some “traditional” people may believe in God, but most of us don’t, certainly not in the scientific community. We are all essentially the same, just ordinary human beings. So, any notion of “becoming god” would be a delusion, a “colossal narcissism” as Jones put it. Jungians are particularly wary of identifying with an archetype, so they loathe facing the difficult truth revealed in Jung’s Red Book and elsewhere. Kingsley addresses this concern from the start by pointing out that “humanity itself is an archetype,” with which most of us identify without even realizing it, and the consequences are grim. As Kingsley puts it, “what happens when we identify with being a nice, modest, ordinary human being? We … live like everyone else, we die like everyone else; start to lose our faculties as we turn sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety; drift off into trivialities and completely forget what life is all about.” For most of us today the sacred is non-existent except as a psychological concept. In our archetypal mediocrity “we think we can magically confine the terrifying reality of the sacred to some separate place or room,” but this, Kingsley says, is the most profound kind of hubris and inflation. The price we pay is our dulled and zombie-like placidity, anesthetized by our technological version of Plato’s cave: the culture of ubiquitous screens, whether smart phones, TV, or computers.
There is certainly a danger in identifying with an archetype, so the question is how Jung managed the experience of deification without falling into permanent madness. The answer is that “the obnoxious manifestations of inflation” are always the “start of a psychological process, never the end.” How, then, do we live through experiences of being “touched by the fingers of the divine?”
[I]f you just identify with the experience and make no effort to come to terms with it as a human, you’ll end up in the mental hospital. Avoid the experience, though, and you are throwing the most valuable of gifts away. In short, try to walk away from it and it’s sure to throw its shadow over you: haunt you for the rest of your meaningless nights and even emptier days. But if you learn the secret of how to relate to it consciously, then you’ll find it settling as a new awareness halfway between you and the depths of your unconscious so that you are no longer overwhelmed by the forces which sweep over you—no longer need to overwhelm them. Instead, there is a new harmony of mutual respect; the primordial state of divine awareness hidden away inside a human body without any of the grabbing or inflation or identification; the life in God.
Deification is not collapsing into a unified state. It is not identifying with the god but experiencing the human paradox completely, realizing that only by not being divine can one offer the god a place to live. Our refusal to identify with the archetypes allows them to “be free from us … assisted by our consciousness but uncontaminated by the unbecoming dramas of our human psychology.” “Jungian therapy,” Kingsley says, “was never meant to be just another therapy in the modern sense of being about me and me and me; it was about the therapeia of serving, and caring for, the divine.” This is Jung’s great insight for how the soul is to engage the archetypes, serve them, set them free: “helping them as only a human can, through the non-inflation of non-identification, to carry on with doing their real work in the world … uncontaminated by us.”
This is the essential message of Catafalque: when the archetype descends, when we are touched by the divine and feel called to become saviors of the world, there is “a right way, as well as a wrong way” to do this.
As for the wrong way: there is no mystery about that at all. Jung makes it perfectly clear that the trap so many unprepared people fall into is to identify with the archetypal image of the savior and then, through the sheer naivety of their identification, fall victim to a massive inflation—the almighty presumption of thinking they have literally become the one divine savior themselves.
Unprepared? Who in the world could ever prepare for the descent of an archetype? No one. The path to individuation, then, must include inflation, feeling that one has become god, god’s messenger….ME. Rarest of the rare. All that. How can one find a way out of that trap? Hard psychological work, says Kingsley, and never taking oneself too seriously or presenting oneself as a prophet. Perhaps, most important of all, is the ability “to laugh heartily at one’s god-almighty little ego.” Yet even with that, the archetype does not go away. We then need to learn to honor the archetype that continues to live in us while, at the same time, recognizing that it is not “us.” If Jung’s Red Book is any indication, this is a struggle that is sometimes unbearable. It is, Jung says, a “battle of the gods”that might, if one is fortunate, result in individuation and deification. To become the god, then, one must paradoxically not be the god. Or in the poetic confession of an alchemist carved into stone at Bollingen, “I give birth to the light even though my nature is darkness.”
To put this process in other terms used by Jung, it is to learn how to live one’s conventional personality, one’s professional self, what Jung calls personality #1, and at the same time, be alive to one’s eternal or divine identity, what Jung calls personality #2. Kingsley continually points to the profound differences of these personalities in Jung, with his #1 personality hiding, obfuscating, or at times outright denying the existence of his personality #2. And yet, the genius of Jung was how he was able to share the vision of #2 through the often-deceptive language of his #1; how the magician, prophet, and savior revealed and veiled himself as psychologist and scientist. It is the legacy of Jung the scientist and psychologist on which the Jungian community depends, so from the very beginning his closest students misunderstood and even misrepresented Jung’s own words. For example, in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, where Jung describes his encounter with the unconscious, in his original draft he wrote: “I wanted to achieve something in my science, and then I bumped into this stream of lava, and then it brought everything into order.” In Aniela Jaffé’s transcription this becomes “… I hit upon a stream of lava and the heat of its fires reshaped my life.” Later, Sonu Shamdasani completes the misrepresentation of Jung with his translation: “… I was plunged in this stream of lava and then had to classify everything.” In the original, it is not Jung the rational scientist who takes the initiative; it is the lava itself, the mysterious unconscious, that works through Jung. Jaffé had wanted to portray Jung as a heroic rational figure, and Shamdasani, similarly, gives the initiative and control to Jung himself, something he had clearly disowned. Jung was following the alchemical dictum: from darkness I give birth to light. Now, thanks to Kingsley’s meticulous scholarship, we can see through the distortions of these Jungians, but the key point here is that Jung realized that it is the unconscious itself, the darkness, that does its work through us, if only we do not interfere with our rationalizing inflations.
Kingsley’s concern with rationalizing inflation leads to my second and more personal question. Here and in his other books, Kingsley lays the blame for our severed connection with the sacred at the feet of Plato, the most influential philosopher of the West. Kingsley’s evidence that Plato over-valued rationality and hijacked the shamanic practice of Parmenides, making it into an intellectual exercise, is persuasive and well-documented, and this creates a problem for me. As a scholar of the Platonist Iamblichus, I know that he shares Kingsley’s concern about rationalizing inflation. In On the Mysteries, Iamblichus complains bitterly to Porphyry about the impiety and rationalistic hubris of “the Greeks”:
At the present time, I think the reason everything has fallen into a state of decay—both in our words and prayers—is because they are continually being changed by the endless innovations and lawlessness of the Greeks. For the Greeks by nature are followers of the latest trends and are eager to be carried off in any direction, possessing no stability themselves.
These are virtually the same complaints expressed by Jung about the poisonous effects of the rationalizing “spirit of our times.” Kingsley points out that Jung read Iamblichus carefully , and it is likely that Iamblichus’ instructions for how to engage imaginal beings—the phasmata of theurgic divination—influenced Jung’s encounters with imaginal beings such as Philemon. The question this raises is what it means to say that Iamblichus was a Platonist? I think the answer is that there have been distinctly different kinds of Platonism, with each “school” expressing the vision of its primary teacher.
From the skeptical Academics of the 2nd century BCE, to the Pythagorean Platonists such as Moderatus and Numenius (1st and 2nd centuries CE), to Plotinus himself, the renowned mystic (3rd century CE), Platonism has assumed many faces. This is evident as well in Neoplatonism where the disembodying spirituality of Plotinus—although revered by many even today—was not the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus or the Platonists who followed him. Iamblichus argued that those in the Plotinian-Porphyrian school risked cutting themselves off from the divinity of the cosmos. Iamblichus’ theurgical Platonism was the ritual practice of the ancients and the sacred races, very much opposed to the intellectualizing he saw in Porphyry, Plotinus, and the “Greeks.”
So, how can a theurgist, a Pythagorean, and a follower of Hermes also be a Platonist? Whatever the intent of Plato himself, theurgical Platonists transformed the dialogues into vehicles of mystagogy, leading the soul into contact with divinities that culminate in theurgic rites—like Jung’s Red Book—where theurgists become receptacles of the gods and assume their responsibility for co-creating the cosmos, just like the Native American elder Mountain Lake and Jung himself. Considering Kingsley’s critique, what seems to be the pivotal issue is whether Platonism helps us become participants in this archetypal demiurgy or imprisons us in conceptual abstractions. Sadly, I think Kingsley is right about most scholarly Platonism. On the other hand, as exemplified by Socrates and his practice of leading interlocutors into the abyss of aporia, there were and still are those who interpret the Platonic tradition as a path of existential transformation. For some, the dialogues function as a kind of ritual space where our self-absorbed ego is radically undone by the figure of Socrates. Notwithstanding Kingsley’s critique of Plato, he is well aware of this Socratic and transformative dimension of the Platonic tradition, and Jung himself was a deep reader of Iamblichus. Kingsley’s critique of Platonism, then, needs some qualification. Platonism is more than Kingsley makes it out to be.
What is fundamentally important about Catafalque is that Kingsley demonstrates convincingly that Jung recovered the shamanic path exemplified by Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Socrates. Jung tried to save us from the “insanity of reason” by descending to the underworld, serving the archetypes, and disavowing the impiety of “the Greeks” who reduce the sacred to rationalizations. There is much in Catafalque I have not addressed, perhaps the most important is Kingsley’s discussion of the Hebrew prophets who raged against a godless world. Kingsley here appropriately includes Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, that draws from the rhythms of these prophets to wail against the “insanity of America,” its mechanized thinking, suffocating architecture, and the robotic efficiency that is the child of Reason. This almost verbatim mirrors the words of Jung who, after visiting New York, says “suppose an age when the machine gets on top of us …. After a while, when we have invested all our energy in rational forms, they will strangle us…They are the dragons now, they became a sort of nightmare.”
Kingsley ends Catafalque with depressing prophecies about the end of western civilization, both from Jung and from Kingsley himself. The great wave that was our civilization has spent itself. We are in the undertow now, and we don’t even realize it. To read these chapters is to feel as if one is already a corpse. And Kingsley presents this so bluntly, with so much conviction, it is, frankly, disturbing. And even though Kingsley writes that “Quite literally, our western world has come to an end,” I don’t quite believe him. When speaking about Jung giving psychological advice, Kingsley says “make sure you have enough mētis or alertness not to believe him,” and I don’t believe Kingsley’s final message either. Kingsley’s message of doom is both true and false. The entire book has been telling us that we are already dead, that we are already in the underworld, but, of course, we just don’t understand it. So, then he offers us a very physical and literal picture of our end, laced with nuclear fallout and images of contamination. And he forthrightly says the purpose of his work is “to provide a catafalque for the western world.” It is, he says, time to grieve, and I think he is right. We need to grieve for the emptiness of our world, for our dead souls, our empty lives, but this grief is also the only medicine that can revive the collective corpse that we have become. Kingsley is doing his best to show us, without any false hope, the decaying corpse that we are. It is only through our unwavering acceptance, grieving and weeping for this, that we can be healed. In Jung’s terms, only the death of the personal can allow for birth into the impersonal. Into what…? We cannot know. We never will. It is not for our insatiable minds.
Gregory Shaw is a Professor of Religious Studies. He is the author of Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus and a number of articles on the later Neoplatonists and on Iamblichus in particular. He is currently working on a manuscript that compares the embodied aspects of later Platonic philosophy to the tantric traditions of South Asia.