The Mandala and the Maelstrom

Volpini Suite: Dramas of the Sea: A Descent into the Maelström, by Paul Gaugin

In an article I wrote called “The Involution of Consciousness,” I was led to a very important symbol that has greatly influenced my thinking, i.e. the Maelstrom. I wrote these words:

We are swirling within Soul’s Maelstrom. Round and round we go in this world, and ever downward. But, as we move deeper into the Vortex of Life, we move, simultaneously, inward and closer together. The lower we go into the Maelstrom, the quicker consciousness increases.  Let this image burn within your mind.

I have just realized, or maybe re-realized, that, if you look straight down into the whirling vortex, the Maelstrom is a mandala. So, the interpretation I wrote is yet another meaning for this ubiquitous symbol.

I quoted a poem by Edgar Allan Poe:

It may look like boasting — but what I tell you is truth — I began to reflect how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a manner, and how foolish it was in me to think of so paltry a consideration as my own individual life, in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God’s power. I do believe that I blushed with shame when this idea crossed my mind. After a little while I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself. I positively felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the sacrifice I was going to make; and my principal grief was that I should never be able to tell my old companions on shore about the mysteries I should see. These, no doubt, were singular fancies to occupy a man’s mind in such extremity — and I have often thought since, that the revolutions of the boat around the pool might have rendered me a little light-headed (A Descent Into the Malestrom, by Edgar Allan Poe).

Poe obviously believed that plunging into this mandala meant the sacrifice of death. What if the center of the mandala symbolizes death? Perhaps not necessarily physical death (although it could mean that too), but transformation? Could it be death of the old and birth of the new? He greatly desired to explore the depths of the maelstrom, and he realized it would mean great sacrifice. Isn’t that the way of the soul? We die many deaths during the process of soul-making. Old things die and new things take their place. We never step into the same river twice.

We fear death very much, probably because, since the days of St. Paul,  death has been thought of as an enemy to be extinguished, hence the quest for eternal life. But we fear exactly what we need. Death represents transformation, and we are terrified of change.

As we move within the swirling mandala, we move closer together. I think this could mean that we become more familiar with the many aspects of the soul, the autonomous archetypal personalities that dwell within us. It could also mean drawing closer in global consciousness because we know that the microcosm is a mirror of the macrocosm; as above, so below.

So, just more food for thought in my search for alternative meanings from the mandala symbol.


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In my last article, I brought up the example of the mandala as a strictly pictorial symbol, the kind the archetypal powers use to initiate one into imaginal thinking, and to train the imaginal ego. I said this was a first step into the imaginal world, but that one should eventually move on to deeper archetypal experiences.

There is no doubt that the mandala is a ubiquitous symbol. It appears in dreams and is quite prevalent in Nature. It can be found in all cultures, both ancient and modern. At least from the viewpoint of archetypal psychology, the attempt to integrate the soul’s many powers into one central Self profanes the soul’s multiplicity. If not wholeness, then what meaning does the mandala hold for us?

First, let us hear what Carl Jung has to say:

As I have said, mandala means ‘circle.’ There are innumerable variants of the motif shown here, but they are all based on the squaring of a circle. Their basic motif is the premonition of a centre of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy. The energy of the cen­tral point is manifested in the almost irresistible compulsion and urge to become what one is, just as every organism is driven to assume the form that is characteristic of its nature, no matter what the circumstances. This centre is not felt or thought of as the ego but, if one may so express it, as the self. Although the centre is represented by an innermost point. it is surrounded by a periphery containing everything that belongs to the self-the paired opposites that make up the total personality. This total­ity comprises consciousness first of all, then the personal un­conscious, and finally an indefinitely large segment of the collective unconscious whose archetypes are common to all mankind. A certain number of these, however, are permanently or temporarily included within the scope of the personality and, through this contact, acquire an individual stamp as the shadow, anima, and animus, to mention only the best-known figures. The self, though on the one hand simple, is on the other hand an extremely composite thing, a “conglomerate soul,” to use the Indian expression (Jung 357).

Within Jung’s writings on the Self, there is the implication that something is wrong with the soul being multiplicitous, and that this must be corrected. This is brought about by bringing the various complexes into a state of wholeness. The mandala supposedly symbolizes this. Of course, individuating toward wholeness requires a strong ego.

This model seems to be based on the theology of Judeo-Christianity, the idea of having a single, central, supreme god. In this paradigm of analytical psychology, ego, or Self, is supreme. Hillman calls this “monotheistic psychology,”  saying we must shift away from the “ego as sole center of consciousness” (Hillman 264-265). He further says that it is this kind of psychology that “presents the ego in a direct line of confrontation and covenant with a single self, represented by images of unity (mandalas, crystals, balls, wise men, and other patterns of order)” (Hillman 265).

So, we know Jung’s opinion as to what the mandala represents. If the integration to wholeness is a faulty model, what else could the mandala symbolize? I like what Jung says about “the urge to become what one is.” In my thinking, everything has a purpose in our universe. I think my purpose is to write these words you are reading. I have always felt that my research and writing is my purpose, my acorn that can grow into an oak. Perhaps the mandala represents a journey of the soul, not necessarily toward a monotheistic idea of wholeness, or center of consciousness, but simply a circumambulatory experience of the various personalities within us. At times, we may experience what seems like a central power, but this is just another archetype operating in its own non-hierarchical mode of consciousness. We spin, as in a vortex. We experience many different powers within ourselves. This churning of the soul is its wheel of life.

Let us not limit the power of the imagination by claiming a symbol only represents one particular interpretation. Like the soul, all images are unfathomable.


Works Cited

Hillman, James. The Myth of Analysis. New York: Harper, 1972.

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A Deeper View of the Archetypes

Portrait of Marceli Staroniewicz Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz – 1927

While perusing James Hillman’s book, The Myth of Analysis, I came across an idea that had never really crossed my mind before:

…we have become…obsessed with symbolic images, confusing archetypal reality with visual imagery (Hillman 188).

This floored me! Had my love for visual symbolic imagery deceived me into ignoring deeper archetypal reality? Apparently, when there is no imaginal connection to the soul, the archetypes initially present themselves as “pictorial configurations,” symbolic images. This is fine, but one should not stop there and rest on their laurels. There are deeper ways in which the archetypes reveal themselves to us. Hillman says, “We overvalue the study of symbols believing that we will find archetypal reality there” (ibid.).  The archetypes manifest, many times, through the body: through the voice, the way a person carries herself or himself, symptoms of illness, or just their overall style and form. Thinking imaginatively about these things brings a deeper understanding of how the archetypes are influencing the person. This kind of thinking requires the imaginal ego, of which Hillman says “does not mean an ego filled with drug-caused images or one filled with the knowledge of images. It rather means behaving imaginatively” (Hillman 189).

The archetypes also manifest themselves throughout the universe and all its animaterial contents. Not only visually, as in the amazing spiral nebulae, stars, and planets, but in subtler ways too, such as planetary movement, dark matter, and black holes. All behavior can be viewed imaginally. This involves, first of all, not taking behavior literally, as we usually do because of our scientific bent. Thinking archetypally means thinking imaginally about all things.

Jung attempted to develop the imaginal ego in his patients by using “active imagination,” which Hillman describes as “a term describing the subtle balance between the three faculties: an active will, an interpretative understanding, and the independent movement of fantasies” (ibid.). The practice of active imagination allows the imaginal ego to come to the fore, thus facilitating the soul-making process.

In summary, if one has just become familiar with depth psychology through C.G. Jung’s work, it is very easy to become somewhat obsessed with the strictly pictorial symbols, such as mandalas. It is normal, though, since this is the initial kind of archetypal recognition. The point Hillman tries to make, however, is that there are deeper levels of archetypal phenomena than just the visual. The archetypal practitioner must “see through” all things. So, look for the gods in all things. Think imaginatively.

Works Cited

Hillman, James. The Myth of Analysis. New York: Harper, 1972.

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Treasure of the Unfathomable

Durin’s Bane, by Markus Röncke

Using the terms of today, we might translate this art as a method of presenting the organization of the collective unconscious too–according to archetypal dominants. The archetypes would correspond to divine imaginal forms used as Aristotelian or Kantian conceptual categories. Rather than logical or scientific laws, mythical figures would provide the a priori structures within the caverns and dens of the immeasurable imagination. All psychic events might be placed in meaningful coherence by means of these mythical structures. In fact, the categories of logic and numbers, of science and theology, could themselves be reduced (i.e., led back) to more basic metaphors of myth. No concepts, no matter how general and abstract, could embrace the range of these archetypal metaphors (The Myth Of Analysis, James Hillman, page 179).

Everything we empirically experience is myth and metaphor. All that we experience with the senses points to a parallel archetypal reality. As above, so below. The universe we experience everyday hints at the universe within. This is why, say in Zen Buddhism, for example, one can learn more about truth by pondering a flower than by taking all the psychology courses in the world. There is more truth in a tree than in all the science textbooks in all the universities in the world. But we must remember. The Ars Memoriae provides us with a methodology whereby we can do just that.

The psyche is a vast universe populated with innumerable images, just as the universe we gaze out upon everyday holds innumerable planets, stars, and galaxies. The ancients called this thesaurus inscrutabilis, or “treasure of the unfathomable.” What a perfect metaphor for soul! We remember well the words of Heraclitus,

The limits of the soul you would not find out though you traverse every way, so deep lies its principle (Fragment 71).

All truth lies within us. Because we are all connected unconsciously, and have been for untold eons, we have access to all truth. We know this unconsciously, but we have been washed in the river Lethe and have forgotten. Truth in Greek is Aletheia. Notice that Lethe is part of this word. Aletheia, however, it is a remembering or recollection. Thus, truth comes through reminiscence.

The Ars Memoria utilized a technique called the Memory Palace, or Memory Theater. You can read more about that here. I think the road to reminiscence may lie with this technique and the imagination. These “archetypal dominants,” mentioned above by Hillman, can be seen as overarching categories under which all knowledge can be subsumed. In ancient Greece, the pantheon of gods served this purpose. Today, we call them archetypes. But they are just as powerful today as they were then. The planets were also used, as were the zodiacal signs. There are many systems all over the world for imagining the archetypes. They are, however, many roads to the same realities, just as some see the various religions as many paths to the same god.

The collective unconscious conceptually represents what St. Augustine called memoria:

Great is this power of memory, exceedingly great, O my God–a large and boundless inner hall! Who has plumbed the depths of it? Yet it is a power of my mind, and it belongs to my nature. But I do not myself grasp all that I am. Thus the mind is far too narrow to contain itself. But where can that part of it be which it does not contain? Is it outside and not in itself? How can it be, then, that the mind cannot grasp itself? A great marvel rises in me; astonishment seizes me. Men go forth to marvel at the heights of mountains and the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the vastness of the ocean, the orbits of the stars, and yet they neglect to marvel at themselves. Nor do they wonder how it is that, when I spoke of all these things, I was not looking at them with my eyes–and yet I could not have spoken about them had it not been that I was actually seeing within, in my memory, those mountains and waves and rivers and stars which I have seen, and that ocean which I believe in–and with the same vast spaces between them as when I saw them outside me. But when I saw them outside me, I did not take them into me by seeing them; and the things themselves are not inside me, but only their images. And yet I knew through which physical sense each experience had made an impression on me (Confessions, VIII, 15).

James Hillman comments on Augustine’s musings on memoria:

What we today call “the unconscious” and describe in spatial metaphors, though it is boundless and also timeless, which “contains” “contents” – images, personages, and affects, now called complexes – and which has a collective historical aspect as well as an ahistorical archetypal structure, at the unfound center of which, and around which, all else moves, the imago Dei: this unconscious appears hardly to differ from what was once called by Augustine memoria or memoria Dei or the thesaurus inscrutabilis (The Myth of Analysis, pg. 171).

This unfathomable chamber greatly reminds me of Tolkien’s dwarvish stronghold of Moria, which lay deep beneath the Misty Mountains. Its incredibly complex tunnels, chambers, halls, and mines provided, for many millennia, a home for the clan, the Longbeards. According to Tolkien, the word, “moria” is Sindarin for “Black Chasm,” or “Black Abyss,”which is a wonderful metaphor for the collective unconscious. The dwarves called it Khazad-dûm, or the “delving of the dwarves.” To “delve” means “to research or make painstaking inquiries into something.” This is what we are doing by exploring the caverns and grottoes of the soul. Deep within the labyrinth of Moria, the dwarves found vast amounts of treasure, gold, and mithril, just as we are continually discovering rich treasures of the soul. We know that danger lurks there, as well. In the depths of Moria lived a Balrog, whom the dwarves called Durin’s Bane. There are also similar beings within the collective unconscious that can wreak comparable havoc.

Augustine had grasped in the late fourth century the truth of the objective psyche, or, as Jung named it, the collective unconscious. He understood the paradoxical nature of the soul, that it is “a power of…mind,” yet he saw that “the mind is far too narrow to contain itself.” Hillman says, “the parallels to the unconscious of Jung are obvious” (The Myth of Analysis, pg. 172).

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Archetypal Psychology and Reversion

Portrait of Michal Choromanski, by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz

Archetypal psychology holds that, when dealing with a psychological breakdown, one must “see through” the symptoms, and examine the mythological material that underlies the event. Assuming the “psychological sickness is an enactment of a pathologizing fantasy, archetypal psychology proceeds to search for the archai, the governing principles or root metaphors of the fantasy” (Hillman, Re-visioning 99). Hillman borrows, here, from Plotinus’ idea of epistrophe, or reversion.

Archetypal psychology would attempt to lead the pathologizing into meaning through resemblance with an archetypal background following the principle stated by Plotinus, “All knowing comes by likeness,”…the idea that all things desire to return to the archetypal originals from which they are copies and from which they proceed (ibid.).

Reversion “connects an event to its image, a psychic process to its myth, a suffering of the soul to the imaginal mystery expressed therein” (Hillman, Dream 4). This is a phenomenological process where one asks the image to reveal its archetypal foundations, to which god or goddess it belongs. One need not necessarily be an expert in Greek mythology. The archetypes arise in most world mythologies, as Joseph Campbell so aptly demonstrated. As a prerequisite, one should, however, be schooled in the manner in which the archetypes manifest themselves, be it in Greek mythology, Norse mythology, or any other foundational mythology. It just so happens that Greek mythology is very well suited to our Western mindset, since it is the substructural mythology of all Western culture.

This method was Hillman’s preference over Jung’s general idea of seeing psychological events through the eyes of opposites. Of that theory, Hillman says,

…it’s too mechanical. It presents all soul events within a compensatory system of pairs: mind and body, ego and world, spirit and instinct, conscious and unconscious, inner and outer, and so on interminably. But soul events are not part of a general balancing system or a polar energy system or a binary information system. Soul events are not parts of any system. They are not reactions and responses to other sorts of events at the opposite end of any fulcrum. They are independent of the tandems in which they are placed, inasmuch as there is an independent primacy of the imaginal that creates its fantasies autonomously, ceaselessly, spontaneously. Myth-making is not compensatory to anything else; nor is soul-making (Hillman, Re-Visioning 100).

Most of Hillman’s work was brought forth using the process of reversion. He tackled several notoriously difficult issues by deliteralizing and attempting to return the pathologized images back to their archetypal sources. I am thinking here of his book, Suicide and the Soul, where he mythologized the pathological image of wanting to die as a metaphor for the desire to put an end to one sort of existence, and the wish to begin another. In Dream and the Underworld, he dealt with the connection between dreams and death, plunging headlong into the source of dreams, the Underworld. Reversion was Hillman’s primary method for treating patients, for writing books, and most importantly, for soul-making.


Works Cited

Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology. New York: Harper, 1975.

Hillman, James. Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper, 1979.

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Polytheism in Archetypal Psychology

Creation of the World, by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Public Domain

Archetypal psychology is not interested in the integration of the multiple psychic persons to a unified Self, as in Jungian theory. The soul is polytheistic, according to this view. To allow each autonomous Being to have its own place, no attempt should be made to gather them into a central self. The Anima Mundi is diffused throughout Nature, where all animatter is specked with fiery sparks of divinity. As fiery, orange scintillae spark upward from a campfire into a night sky, so do the light-filled blazings of Soul permeate throughout the psyche, symbolized by the innumerable stars that dot the heavens. These are the Archetypal Powers worshiped by ancient civilizations. They do not desire to be centralized. It is contra naturam. Rather, it is better to discover which god is owed its due by dealing with the fragmented messages that arise from the unconscious, alerting us to their presence. These messages come in dreams, symptoms, complexes, illnesses, fantasies, etc.

James Hillman, founder of archetypal psychology, writes that archetypal psychology would

…accept the multiplicity of voices, the Babel of the anima and animus, without insisting upon unifying them into one figure, and accept too the dissolution process into diversity as equal in value to the coagulation process into unity. The pagan gods and goddesses would be restored to their psychological domain (Hillman 39).

Each god and goddess have their particular qualities and characteristics. Forcing them into an abstract unity diminishes their valuable idiosyncrasies. These Beings are Images. Images have a multiplicity of meanings, so shoving them into one personality called the Self devalues their place in the scheme of Nature. As an example, Hillman gives us a brief account of how a bout of depression would be dealt with:

Depression, say, may be led into meaning on the model of Christ and his suffering and resurrection; it may through Saturn gain the depth of melancholy and inspiration, or through Apollo server to release the blackbird of prophetic insight. From the perspective of Demeter depression may yield awareness of the mother-daughter mystery, or, through Dionysus, we may find depression a refuge from the excessive demands of the ruling will (Hillman 40).

You see how rich and valuable the insight is if this method is used. In this way, consciousness “circulate(s) among a field of powers. Each god has his due as each complex deserves its respect in its own right” (ibid.).

Our Western notion of upward progress through hierarchical phases, inspired by monotheistic theology, brought about the idea that there is a target to aim for, i.e. integration into a Self. The problem is, though, this is not the way Nature works.

Hillman might look at the thousands of divisions of Christianity, for example, and probably say it was therapeutic. He might say that the many complexes must be cared for, hence the many, many schisms. In order to care for the soul, the many must be recognized and nurtured.

In Jungian theory, to integrate the various complexes, one must withdraw the projections. But, even Jung himself admitted,

The individual ego is much too small, its brain much too feeble, to incorporate all the projections withdrawn from the world. Ego and brain burst asunder in the effort; the psychiatrist calls it schizophrenia (qtd. by Hillman 41).

When dealing with psychological breakdown, Jungians might say mandalas, as images of unity, could compensate the many complexes by bringing about order from chaos. Archetypal psychology would counter with its idea of reversion, which I will discuss in the next article.

Works Cited

Hillman, James. A Blue Fire. Ed. Thomas Moore. New York: Harper, 1989.


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Impediments to Soul-Making

El Abrazo de la Noche, by Daniel Valcarce

The soul’s tendency to pathologize, to fall apart, is absolutely crucial to soul-making. In our culture, with its positive thinking, extreme fitness advocates, diet fads, and pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstrap philosophy, you would think we were the healthiest and most blessed people in the world. But it’s just the opposite. We fall apart just like every other human being. Our culture views pathology as evil in some sense, to be shunned. Let’s be truthful, however. Pathologizing is as much a part of our lives as waking and sleeping. We see ourselves as failures if we fall into calamity of some sort, be it ill health, financial ruin, or a bout of depression. In reality, pathologizing occurs in all of our lives at one time or another.

In depth psychology, much wisdom is gained from the study of pathologizing. Psychologist Erik Erikson once wrote, “Pathography remains the traditional source of psychoanalytic insight” (Identity and the Life Cycle, p. 122).  James Hillman said, “The insights of depth psychology derive from souls in extremis, the sick, suffering, abnormal, and fantastic conditions of psyche” (Revisioning Psychology, p. 55). We all experience these extreme states; it is part of the human condition.

Hillman defines pathologizing as

…the psyche’s autonomous ability to create illness, morbidity, disorder, abnormality, and suffering in any aspect of its behavior and to experience and imagine life through this deformed and afflicted perspective ( ibid. p. 57).

Hillman’s idea is that we begin to “see through” our suffering to what it is trying to say about the soul through the pathological event, and what the soul itself is saying. This is a phenomenological approach, taking the image of the pathological event as it appears, and allowing it to bring forth what is behind the event. Archetypal psychology looks for a god behind the pathology, an autonomous being of the psyche that demands to be recognized.

Since the inception of modern psychology, there have been roadblocks thrown in the way of allowing pathological images to speak. These are impediments to the soul-making process. The following ideas, which I borrow from Hillman’s book, Revisioning Psychology, form impediments that stand in the way of the crucial necessity of the soul’s pathologizing nature.

The first such idea Hillman deals with is Nominalism, or as he calls it, “nominalistic denial” (p. 58). In the early days of modern psychology, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was stylish to attempt to classify psychological disorders in a rational and orderly manner. This is when many of the familiar psychological terms were coined, such as schizophrenia, alcoholism, claustrophobia, psychopathology, etc. In an attempt to classify illnesses in an objective, rational manner, the subjective person who suffered was ignored. Such an approach may work for the objects of scientific study, but the study of the soul is an entirely different thing. Hillman writes,

Labels like “psychopath” or “manic-depressive,” while bringing intellectual clarity also seal off in closed jars the content of what is named, and the person so named is relegated to a shelf marked “abnormal psychology” (ibid. p. 61).

The second “style of denial” Hillman deals with is that of nihilism. The point here is that, in the “language game called psychopathology,” diagnoses of abnormal psychology, since they now consist of empty, meaningless words, are simply thrown out. “There are no neuroses, only cases;  no cases, only persons in situations…” (ibid. p. 62). Hillman points the finger at existentialism, and, in particular, at philosopher, Karl Jaspers. Jaspers’ critique of psychopathology resulted in the rejection of it as a viable field by many of his followers because they didn’t take the time to “sort it through.”  Hillman names Michel Foucault and Ronald Laing as two thinkers who completely deny there is any value at all in psychopathology. They would even do away with psychiatry altogether.

The third impediment to soul-making is the idea of transcendence. Here, Hillman directs his critique at humanistic psychology. Humanistic psychology idealizes man, “sweeping his pathologies under the carpet” (ibid. p. 64).

Unlike the terms of professional psychopathology, these resonate with a positive glow: health, hope, courage, love, maturity, warmth, wholeness; it speaks of the upward-growing forces of human nature which appear in tenderness and openness and sharing and which yield creativity, joy, meaningful relationships, play, and peaks. We find the same one-sidedness in its goals, such as freedom, faith, fairness, responsibility, commitment. Besides the fact that its notion of growth is simplistic, of nature romantic, and love, innocent–for it presents growth without decay, nature without catastrophes or inert stupidity, and love without possession–besides all this, its idea of the psyche is naive if not delusional” (ibid. p. 65).

Hillman further criticizes humanistic psychology for being “shadowless, a psychology without depth, whose deep words remain shallow because transcendence is its aim” (ibid.). Hillman has the psychology of Abraham Maslow, et al. in mind here.

Attention is also turned to the transcendent teachings of the East, that have so pervaded our culture since the 1960’s. Eastern teachings, many times, view human pathologizing as “evidence of the lower, unactualized rungs of the ladder. Meditate, contemplate, exercise through them and away from them, but do not dwell there for insight” (ibid. p. 66). This attitude says that

Psychopathology in and for itself is not an authentic expression of the soul’s divinity. Divinity is up at the peaks, not in the swamps of our funk, not in the sludge of depression and anxiety…” (ibid.).

Hillman admits that his take on Eastern teachings derives from the manner in which they are taught by Westerners. In their native soil, they are “rooted in the thick yellow loam of richly pathologized imagery–demons, monsters, grotesque Goddesses, tortures, and obsenities” (ibid. p. 67). He says,

The archetypal content of Eastern doctrines as experienced through the archetypal structures of the Western psyche becomes a major and systematic denial of pathologizing (ibid.).

The soul’s pathologizing is a natural occurrence. To deny it, is to deny soul.

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