Tag Archives: Jacob

“Man and the Sea” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Ivan Aivazovsky

Painting by Ivan Aivazovsky

Always, unfettered man, you will cherish the sea!
The sea your mirror, you look into your mind
In its eternal billows surging without end
And its gulfs are bitter, so must your spirit be.

You plunge with joy into this image of your own:
You hug it with your eyes and arms; your heart
Forgets for a time its noisy beat, becomes a part
Of a greater, more savage and less tameable moan.

In your own ways, you both are brooding and discreet:
Man, no one has mapped your chasm’s hidden floor,
Oh sea, no one knows your inmost riches, for
Your jealousy hides secrets none can repeat.

As the uncounted swarm of centuries gathers
You two have fought without pity or remorse, both
From sheer love of the slaughter and of death,
Oh, eternal wrestlers, oh, relentless brothers!

(translation by Ruthven Todd)

The use of the sea as a metaphor for the subconscious mind is not unusual in literature, but this may be one of the most clear examples of it. Right in the first stanza, Baudelaire describes the sea as a mirror that allows you to “look into your mind.”

The second stanza intrigues me. The idea that is expressed is that once a person connects with his or her subconscious mind, then that person loses awareness of his conscious self. One’s ordinary awareness is replaced by something primordial, something that exists in the deepest recesses of the psyche.

In the third stanza, we are faced with the mystery of consciousness. The subconscious mind is something that cannot be fathomed or comprehended by our normal state of awareness. Like the divine spirit, it is ineffable.

This brings us to the fourth and final stanza. We have here a struggle, between the rational and the emotional, between the physical and the spiritual, between our inner good and our inner decadence. But what Baudelaire does so eloquently is that he ties these personal internal struggles in with the greater cosmic struggles. The “eternal wrestlers” and “relentless brothers” conjure images Jacob wrestling the angel, as well as Jacob’s struggle with Esau.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book IV – The Red-Haired King and his Lady

Proteus

In this episode, Telemachus and Pisistratus go to Sparta and meet with Menelaus and Helen to inquire about the fate of Odysseus. Over dinner, the king and queen share stories of Odysseus’ feats at Troy, and Menelaus recounts how he made it back after the war. Also in this book, the suitors discover that Telemachus has left Ithaca and they plot to murder him upon his return. Mendon overhears the plans and informs Penelope who grieves that she may lose her son as well as her husband. She prays to Athena, and Athena sends a phantom to let Penelope know that Telemachus will be protected by the goddess.

There is a lot that takes place in this book and it would be easy to write a long post analyzing all the various tales and symbolism, but instead I will focus on one small section that I found to be the most interesting, which was Menelaus’ encounter with Proteus.

Menelaus tells how he was stranded in Egypt and could not figure out how to please the gods and gain favorable passage to leave the region. Proteus’ daughter, Eidothea, takes pity on him and agrees to help Menelaus capture Proteus and thereby acquire the information he needs to escape the doldrums.

I’ll put it for you clearly as maybe, friend.
The Ancient of the Salt Sea haunts this place,
immortal Proteus of Egypt; all the deeps
are known to him; he serves under Poseidon,
and is, they say, my father.
If you could take him by surprise and hold him,
he’d give you course and distance for your sailing
homeward across the cold fish-breeding sea.
And should you wish it, noble friend, he’d tell you
all that occurred at home, both good and evil,
while you were gone so long and hard a journey.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 64)

Before continuing, it is important to note that Proteus is a symbol for the unconscious mind. The god is also associated with Mercury in alchemy.

The German mystical alchemist Heinrich Khunrath wrote of the shape-changing sea-god who, because of his relationship to the sea, is both a symbol of the unconscious as well as the perfection of the art. Alluding to the scintilla, the spark from ‘the light of nature’ and symbol of the anima mundi, Khunrath in Gnostic vein stated of the Protean element Mercury:

“ our Catholick Mercury, by virtue of his universal fiery spark of the light of nature, is beyond doubt Proteus, the sea god of the ancient pagan sages, who hath the key to the sea and …power over all things.”

—Von Hyleanischen Chaos, Carl Jung, vol. 14:50

In modern times, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung defined the mythological figure of Proteus as a personification of the unconscious, who, because of his gift of prophecy and shape-changing, has much in common with the central but elusive figure of alchemy, Mercurius.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Eidothea lays out the plan to Menelaus. It is a fairly long passage, but one that I find rich with symbolism and worth including in this post.

I’ll tell you this, too, clearly as may be.
When the sun hangs at high noon in heaven,
the Ancient glides ashore under the Westwind,
hidden by shivering glooms on the clear water,
and rests in caverns hollowed by the sea.
There flippered seals, brine children, shining come
from silvery foam in crowds to lie around him,
exhaling rankness from the deep sea floor.
Tomorrow dawn I’ll take you to those caves
and bed you down there. Choose three officers
for company—brave men they had better be—
the old one has strange powers, I must tell you.
He goes amid the seals to check their number,
and when he sees them all, and counts them all,
he lies down like a shepherd with his flock.
Here is your opportunity: at this point
gather yourselves, with all your heart and strength,
and tackle him before he bursts away.
He’ll make you fight—for he can take the forms
of all the beasts, and water, and blinding fire;
but you must hold on, even so, and crush him
until he breaks his silence. When he does,
he will be in that shape you saw asleep.
Relax your grip, then, set the Ancient free,
and put your questions, hero:
Who is the god so hostile to you,
and how will you go home on the fish-cold sea.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 65)

First off, the depths from which Proteus will emerge represent the mystical realm which is the source of archetypes and forms, the unseen source of divine emanation. The seals are symbols of the forms which are emanated from the depths of the creative consciousness. The fact that the seals emerge from “silvery foam” suggests the alchemical connection to mercury.

Proteus is described as having “strange powers.” While these could be the powers of transformation, I suspect that the powers also have something to do with the ability to manipulate the emanated forms into corporeal manifestations.

Finally, Menelaus must wrestle with the god of the sea, and must hold onto the god no matter what. This is very similar to Jacob wrestling with the angel, which is symbolic for man wrestling with the concept of the divine. So essentially, Menelaus must grapple with the unknowable aspect of the god-consciousness in order to acquire the knowledge he seeks. He must struggle to keep hold on that which is fluid and ever changing.

As I said, there are many other rich aspects to this book: Menelaus’ comparison between earthly riches and spiritual wealth; the mystical knowledge of herbs and drugs that Helen acquired from the magicians in Egypt; and Telemachus’ voyage to sea as a symbol of a rite of passage. As always, feel free to share any thoughts or comments below, and thanks for stopping by.


 

Further Reading:

Fascinating Mythical Creatures: Proteus

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“Hollow City” by Ransom Riggs: Myth and the Subconscious

HollowCity

Hollow City is the second book in Ransom Riggs’ “Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children” series (see my review of the first book: Symbolism in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs). This novel picks up where the first on left off and follows the adventures of the peculiar children as they race through World War II London in an attempt to save their ymbryne, Miss Peregrine (an ymbryne is a person who can shape-shift into a bird and has the ability to create and maintain time loops). They are hunted by wights and hollows. Wights are amoral beings who seek to exploit peculiars to gain their strengths, while hollows are Lovecraftian creatures who feed on peculiars.

As with the first book, this novel’s greatest strength is the inclusion of abundant photographs. These photos drive the story and augment the mental imagery that the writing evokes. They are all black-and-white photos and could easily be included in a surrealist art exhibit. While I appreciate vivid colors in art and photography, there is something eerily evocative about black-and-white pictures. Maybe it’s the shadowy texture or the dreamlike quality. It’s also very likely that they tap into memories of watching old black-and-white sci-fi and horror films on Saturday mornings as a kid. Regardless, the illustrations in this book work really well for me and I think the story would suffer if it did not have the pictures.

There are two other topics that are explored in this book which I found interesting: myth and the subconscious. They are both subjects that fascinate me and are incorporated into the story in a creative and engaging manner.

“Do you realize what this means?” Millard squealed. He was splashing around, turning in circles, out of breathe with excitement. “It means there’s secret knowledge embedded in the Tales!”

(p. 64)

Great art and literature often seeks to express things that cannot be conveyed through traditional communication, hence the use of symbols and metaphor to express the ineffable. The use of symbolism is also a way to mask ideas that may be dangerous to either the writer or the reader. Hence, our literary history is filled with works that contain knowledge which is not visible on the surface, but requires decoding on the part of the reader. In fact, as one of the characters in the book points out, there are some things that can only be expressed through myth and symbolism.

“Yes,” said Addison. “Some truths are expressed best in the form of myth.”

(p. 98)

The book also explores the subconscious in some creative ways. One part that stood out for me is when Jacob was having a dream, which in and of itself draws on the symbolism associated with Jacob’s dream in the Bible, where he ascends to Heaven and wrestles with God. In this story, Jacob also wrestles in his dream, but with his personal fears. What I found most intriguing, though, was that while Jacob is dreaming, he is talking in his sleep. His words are incomprehensible to his friends, because the language of dreams is all symbol and taps directly into the subconscious. There is no way to adequately express in words the realm of dreams.

I bolted upright, suddenly awake, my mouth dry as paper. Emma was next to me, hands on my shoulders. “Jacob! Thank God—you gave us a scare!”

“I did?”

“You were having a nightmare,” said Millard. He was seated across from us, looking like an empty suit of clothes starched into position. “Talking in your sleep, too.”

“I was?”

Emma dabbed the sweat from my forehead with one of the first-class napkins. (Real cloth!) “You were,” she said. “But it sounded like gobbledygook. I couldn’t understand a word.”

(p. 189)

A shift into the subconscious, or any altered state of consciousness, is often symbolized by a descent into a dark place. In this book, the characters descend into a crypt using a ladder, which again ties in to the biblical myth of Jacob. This entry into a dark and subterranean space represents a shift to the shadowy realm of one’s consciousness.

The ladder descended into a tunnel. The tunnel dead-ended to one side, and in the other direction disappeared into blackness. The air was cold and suffused with a strange odor, like clothes left to rot in a flooded basement. The rough stone walls beaded and dripped with moisture of mysterious origin.

(p. 240)

Overall, I liked this book a lot. It was exciting, fun, and it also contains “secret knowledge” that one can discover if one reads carefully. I look forward to the third book. Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long.

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“What Is Life?” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

It’s the weekend and I kind of wanted to relax, but I also wanted to get a blog post written, so I searched my collection of poems by Coleridge for a short one that wouldn’t take up too much time to read and expound upon. I settled on this one.

Resembles life what once was deem’d light,
Too ample in itself for human sight?
An absolute self—an element ungrounded—
All that we see, all colours of all shade
By encroach of darkness made?
Is very life by consciousness unbounded?
And all the thoughts, pains, joys of mortal breath,
A war-embrace of wrestling life and death?

While this is indeed a short poem, there is a lot of contemplation going on regarding the essence of life. Coleridge appears to be considering that life itself is consciousness, or enlightenment. Our perception and ability to interact with our world is dependent upon our conscious mind. Without consciousness, life would be meaningless.

The most interesting aspect of this poem for me is the tension caused by the use of opposites; for example, light and darkness, pain and joy, life and death.  It is almost a representation of the opposing cosmic forces that hold existence together in balance. Think yin and yang. I myself have learned from experience that life is a constant struggle between opposites; for me it is often logic against emotion, or the spiritual against the material. This struggle is embodied by the archetypal image to which Coleridge alludes at the end of the poem, that of Jacob wrestling with the angel.

JacobAndAngelThe biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel is symbolic of man’s struggle with God. Jacob is essentially struggling to come to terms with the divine aspect of himself. Coleridge appears to be having the same internal struggle, trying to make sense of life’s meaning. Is he just a temporary vessel for “an absolute self,” or is there more to his existence? Is there an even deeper meaning that has yet to be illuminated by human consciousness?

I found this poem oddly comforting. It is good to know that I am not the only person plagued with these questions.

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