Sixth night. My soul leads me into the desert, into the desert of my own self. I did not think that my soul is a desert, a barren, hot desert, dusty and without drink. The journey leads through hot sand, slowly wading without a visible goal to hope for? How eerie is this wasteland. It seems to me that the way leads so far away from mankind. I take my way step by step, and do not know how long my journey will last.1
As Dante began his journey to Hell, he found himself in a dark wood. For Jung, it is a hot, barren desert, “dusty and without drink.” These are collective symbols for the unconscious as old as mankind. Cirlot writes that the desert is ” the most propitious place for divine revelation. . . ” and is “susceptible only to things transcendent.” Furthermore, ” burning drought is the climate par excellence of pure, ascetic spirituality—of the consuming of the body for the salvation of the soul.”2
Again, I think of alchemical imagery. The burning, dry drought, the symbolism of forty days, or forty years in the desert describes the duration of the nigredo. This is a time of blackening. Just as coal has been worked upon by Nature to produce its black state, so is the nigredo soul a metamorphosis in progress. To get to this black condition, the soul must be transformed. It is in this condition that the real process begins. The black sun shines incessantly in this desert.
How does one get to the nigredo state? In the language of alchemy, it is brought on by putrefactio and mortificatio, putrefaction and mortification. The original alchemical substances are subjected to these two processes to produce a blackened mass lacking all cohesion. Putrefaction is falling apart, decomposing. Mortification is a grinding down into smaller and smaller particles, to overwhelmingly punish and destroy. These two processes speak to the total breakdown of anything that is solid in one’s life. This is the soul pathologizing. It is a necessary step, even initiatory, that will eventually bring the gleam of gold to the soul.
Through giving my soul all I could give, I came to the place of the soul and found that this place was a hot desert, desolate and unfruitful.3
Jung was undoubtedly thinking of the anchorites, the Desert Fathers of Christianity, who, in the 4th century A.D. withdrew themselves into the desert wilderness to seek a deeper experience of God.
The desert is the perfect place for the nigredo to do its work. It is an imaginal desert wilderness, a space of the soul. The anchorites projected their desert suffering onto a physical location, which may have helped in their own journeys. After all, the alchemists did perform actual, material experiments, even though some of them knew it all had to do with the soul. Jung is aware of all this, as he makes his way through the deep, hot sand.
The ancients lived their symbols, since the world had not yet become real for them. Thus they went into the solitude of the desert to teach us that the place of the soul is a lonely desert. There they found the abundance of visions, the fruits of the desert, the wondrous flowers of the soul. Think diligently about the images that the ancients have left behind. They show the way of what is to come. Look back at the collapse of empires, of growth and death, of the desert and monasteries, they are the images of what is to come. Everything has been foretold. But who knows how to interpret it? 4
This is not about prophecy. What if the history of consciousness is really more important than secular history? What if the images of the history of consciousness are really what tell the true history of mankind? Hindu mystics say that the so-called Akashic Records contain every thought, word, and action of mankind. Could this really be the realm of Mnemosyne?
Mnemosyne is the daughter of Gaia and Uranus in Hesiod’s Theogony, one of the Twelve Titans. In Greek myth, she is the personification of memory. Zeus lay with Mnemosyne nine nights and bore the Nine Muses. She is also said to be the inventor of words.
Mnemosyne is also the name of one of the five rivers flowing through Hades. After their deaths, initiates of the Greek mystery religions were encouraged to drink from the Mnemosyne instead of the Lethe (forgetfulness), probably so that, after they were reincarnated, they would remember their past lives.
I can’t shake this idea that memory is a very crucial element in the quest for the soul. We are just starting to realize the importance of genetic memory and other ideas, such as Jung’s collective unconscious. Remembering, recollecting have been important philosophical ideas since the time of the ancients. During the Renaissance, thinkers like Giordano Bruno and Robert Fludd rediscovered the lost Ars Memoriae and constructed complex systems (Memory Palace) for memorizing large amounts of information. But why? How does the imagination play into this? I have a gut-feeling that these things are very important to us, and that mankind, in it’s quest for scientific knowledge at all cost, has ignored something that is necessary for its survival.
Plato taught that the world of Ideas is the true reality, and that appearances and particulars are relatively unreal. The purpose of human life, in his estimation, is for souls to participate in this realm of Ideas. Basically, the soul becomes more intelligible by focusing on imperceptibles (the Forms) instead of constantly concentrating on the world of perceptibles (this world, matter, literal reality).
I would add that the realm of Ideas includes metaphor, images, dreams, myths, etc. In my thinking, these have more durable substance than perceptibles. So, I suppose I am saying that soul is fashioned as one learns to pay attention to and perceive imperceptibles.
Memory is the means by which Soul can join itself to matter and become more intelligible, thus having the ability to walk unfettered in the world of Ideas. Remember, this is all metaphorical. Soul is not a literal substance that sits in the pineal gland, as Descartes claimed.
But getting back to Jung’s statement about images that the ancients have left behind, what if all these are recorded on some astral medium? What if they hold the key to our future, for Jung says that “everything has been foretold?” How do we tap into this ocean of information? Did Bruno and Fludd discover it? Inquiring minds want to know!
Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. Jack Sage. London: Routledge, 1971.
Jung, C.G. The Red Book: Liber Novus. Edited by Sonu Shamdasani. Translated by Mark Kyburz, John Peck, and Sonu Shamdasani. Norton, London: 2009.
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