Late at night (actually early in the morning) on Columbus Day 2010 and though I am too feverish to work, I find I cannot sleep and want to listen to words I have not heard in many moons. Two of the most enchanting female voices to emerge from popular culture in modern continental Europe are Nina Hagen and Nana Mouskouri. I listened no fewer than five times to Nina Hagen’s versions of Ave Maria (best reproduced at: #mce_temp_url#
Bringing Greek-Born Nana Mouskouri and German Nina Hagen together to remember Marlene Dietrich is a complex thought that transcends the nature and identity of das ewig weibliche over past 80 years like the amazing conversations of my youth that I never get to have anymore with my late grandmother Helen and my mother Alice…. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tZJnFGs3tE&feature=related
Their combined personalities and heavenly voices reminded me of the question I asked of Canon Noble Owings from whom I took my pre-confirmation classes at St. Thomas-the-Apostle in Hollywood, back a long-long time ago, in a galaxy far away: “Is the soul male or female?” Linguistically, “La Alma” and “Die Selle” are feminine, in Spanish and German at least, but “El Espirito” and “Der Geist” are masculine. I stopped at St. Thomas the other day and it is still a beautiful Church, though Hollywood seems off the beaten path these days. My son Charlie (Freshman at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland) had written me a letter asking me about my views concerning the soul to which I responded exactly one month ago today (and it seems more appropriate to publish this now that we’re approach “All Saints Day”, “All Souls Day” and of course “All Hallows Eve” (Which three days were effectively Celtic New Year’s Day aka Samhain):
Sent: Sun, 12 September, 2010 2:03:08
Subject: Re: Questions I need answered from my Parents
I am finally getting around to writing an answer to your query on Thursday night about souls and essences. I wonder whether you still need to talk about the soul—you haven’t mentioned this project again. It is almost midnight on September 11, going into September 12, 2010: it is exactly 11:57:57p.m. as I start to write this. It will soon be “the witching hour” of midnight.
My views are this: the “soul” is the some total of all those unique characteristics of our existence that make us human, or that make humans distinctive. So for me, “the soul” = “human essence”, at the very least, but that is much too simple, both linguistically and philosophically.
In my “signature line” on this account I have the “signature statement” of a famous incarnation of “the Devil”, the “soul or essence of evil”, the character “Mephistopheles” in Goethe’s Faust, who has been one of my favorite characters in all of drama and literature since I was about 9 or 10. Right after Robin Hood. Right after Batman. Right after Paladin. In my “signature line” on the other rocketmail account, it says, “May God be with you and with thy Spirit”—that is the “Peace” exchanged at Church, in the language of the Old Episcopal (Church of England) Book of Common Prayer (the same language that dates back to the birth of the Church in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I—whose Parliament first authorized a single “Book of Common Prayer”). So it seems that the concept of spirit, soul, or essence must be important to my own psychology.
But what do these words mean to me?
“Spirit” derives, as I always point out, from Latin “spirare” which means “to breathe.” From this word we get so many words (perspire, expire, respirator, etc.) but also one of my favorites, among the most tortured words in the English language: to conspire, to make (or enter into) a conspiracy. “Con” derives from Latin “cum” and the Spanish “con” means the same thing, namely “with.” So, “to conspire” is for two people to “breathe together.” So it can truthfully be said that all social behavior, all social action, is the result of or concomitant with “conspiracy.” And yet “conspiracy theorists” have such a bad reputation. In essence, every contract, including an agreement to marry or have children, is a true “conspiracy.” I repeat: all SOCIAL action is conspiracy, all POLITICAL action, all economic or religious action performed by more than one person acting in concert with another.
But is a “spirit” uniquely human? That is to say, is social behavior uniquely human? No, it is merely uniquely “mammalian” to describe social behavior as “breathing together.” Wolves and their prey (deer, elk, etc.) are all social animals who live and move, “breathing together.” Coatimundis and raccoons to greater or lesser degrees are all social animals, as are almost every species of our nearest relatives, the non-human primates, but especially the most humanoid of all the apes: the Chimpanzees and among them most particularly the Bonobos or “pygmy Chimps”, whose rowdy, sexually promiscuous lives are said to be the non-human creatures most like “primitive” or ancestral (fossil) men.
Even as to the notion of “spirit” or “soul” as equivalent to emotion, no one who has ever looked into a non-human mammals eyes will doubt the reality of non-human spirit and emotion—and hence soul? Dogs do not lick us and ask for pats or scratches behind the ear for merely physical reasons: it is perfectly obvious that animals both breathe together socially and have spirits—animals like wolves also hunt stealthily together, “conspiring” together in all the most sinister senses of the word “conspiracy” in our language to take the lives of other creatures—to make plans and develop techniques to use deer, sheep, goats, cattle, elk, or caribou—to use them for food (“in a callous and premeditated manner, i.e. with malice aforethought). Group hunting among social carnivores cannot be seen as merely the result of genetic instinct.
Outside the mammalian range, the movie “March of the Penguins” has a scene where a parent bird cries over its lost chick who collapsed into the snow. The narrator comments, and the viewer cannot doubt, that this bird is expressing sadness and loss in the most soulful manner—so do birds too have spirits or souls?
Among ancient peoples, from the Aztec and Maya to the Proto-Indo-Europeans, there is strong linguistic and semiotic evidence that birds were considered to be the souls of the departed among humans. It is hard not to see a relic of such symbolism in Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven “Only this and nothing more….Quoth the Raven, Nevermore.” Poe’s “Raven” may ultimately be derived from his Anglo-Saxon background and a faint “racial” memory of Wotan/Odin/Weden—the one-eyed God of the Germanic people’s—identified with the Planet “Mercury” whose bird was the Raven (And even Greek Mercury’s Helmet was Wings—and is associated with Prometheus, whose punishment by birds is also indicative of eternal life after death being “for the birds”—see J.W. Goethe’s Prometheus, also). Wotan’s castle was Valhalla, the Hall of the Worthy Dead, where the birdlike Valkyrie took the souls of the heroes (“helden“) slain on the battlefield. The association of birds with souls may have something to do with the physical observation of birds as scavengers of the dead, and the notion that you “are what you eat.” (I.e.: birds eat the dead and hence become one with the dead).
But the association of birds and the spirits of the ordinary dead from human society appears more plainly explicit in Dante’s Second Ring of Hell, where the souls of lovers lost to lust are blown by the winds, living eternally as birds tossed about by the wind (Canto 5).
Birds at the crossroads were seen as ghosts in purgatory (restless souls whose final destination was unsure) in both Aztec and Babylonian demonology, and they walk alongside the monsters of the cross-roads, who are (again both in Mesoamerica and Mesopotamia) mythologically associated with the 584 day spiraling heliacal ascension and descent of the planet Venus.
So there are so many concepts of the soul and spirit and “essence” of humanity which cannot and do not and will not match—as many words for “soul” almost, in Western languages alone, as for “money”—or as (famously) for “snow” among the Esquimaux of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.
Now, as you certainly recall, we spent a long time watching Buffy and Angel all through different phases of your childhood, and during the years of our separation, I spent a lot of time at Buffy Conferences in Nashville, Atlanta, and Greensboro, North Carolina. Part of my fascination with Whedon’s work has to do with his conception (and depiction) of the “soul” as conscious reflection—“guilt” on the one hand, but “sense of worth” and “value” on the other. I think that Whedon’s conception is actually the quintessentially “English”, especially “Episcopalian/Church of England” notion of the soul, and it is one reason why I have questioned Joss Whedon (even to his face) whether he is really an atheist or not. His understanding and representation of the soul, and of the differentiation between “soulful” and “soulless” beings is (to me at least) so rich and so complex that it defies imagination that he could not believe in the soul—and if he believes in the soul, how could he not then believe in God (and his opposite number) also?
I have been writing now for almost an hour and I feel like I have “only begun to write” about the topic of soul and essence, but I am tired. If you want more, I’ll continue later. I’ll also bounce the idea around to Freiman and some other folks, maybe ask someone at All Saints tomorrow (later today) what they think.
Parsing the Song of Mary—an idiosyncratic childhood memory of mine:
One of my earliest and sweetest childhood memories of my mother, so often (and much more consistently) a terribly ambiguous person in my life, teaching me to memorize the “Magnificat” when I was four or five before I hardly knew any other prayers—she said that once I understood how Mary was the mother of Jesus, I would understand Salvation and open the door to everlasting life.
“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in the strength of my Salvation.
“For He hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden, yet behold from henceforth: all generations shall call me blessed. For in His might He hath exalted me, and Holy is His name. He sheweth His mercy to all that fear Him, from generation to generation, and by the strength of His arm He hath shattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. And He hath put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted them of mean estate. He hath filled the hungry with good things, while the rich he hath sent empty away. And He hath holpen His servant Israel, remembering always His mercy, as He spake to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed forever.”
My mother outlined it for me with the highlighted “s” words of the first sentence and all of the “m” words, plus that critical phrase, “in the imagination of their hearts”. I remember it now thinking, wondering, what is the English language distinction between “soul” and “spirit” in this “Little Song of Mary”? (“Canticle of Mary”, “Le Chanson de Marie“).
I don’t know whether to use + or = as a connecting sign here, but using my mother’s system of parsing the poetry, for whatever it’s worth, even if it was just something she made up to teach me—it has stuck with me for over 45 years now—and the sentences seem to be broken down this way, at least in English, and it would be interesting for you to try to do this with the Greek….
“My soul” = “magnify” = “my spirit” = “strength” = “my salvation.”
“me” = “might” = “me” = “name”.
“mercy” = “Him” = “arm” = “in the imagination of their hearts.”
“mighty” = “them of mean estate” = “empty”
“remembering” = “mercy” = “Abraham”
So that first sentence seems to give us a notion of spirit and soul equating with “magnification”, “strength” and “salvation.”
Yes, it’s hard to believe that this is the same mother of mine….. who has voluntarily been absent from your life and mine…. for a very long time now. She regularly took me down (like Christopher Robin) to see the guard changing at Buckingham Palace, but also to know St. James and Westminster and the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament. She showed me Big Ben, India House, South Africa and Canada Houses on Trafalgar Square, and introduced me to maps and atlases (showed me how to identify the ever shrinking number of “Pink Bits” even while Aunt Mildred was in Rhodesia giving aid & comfort to Ian Smith) and taught me at an early age how to compare one text of the same story to another, and in so doing gave me all my early Robin Hood books and songs…. and taught me so well that at age 5 (she said) I was already able to comment on what appeared to be historical and mythological in the tales of Sherwood forest…. So her contribution to my soul was not to be underestimated…
Oh well, anyhow—as Sunnydale’s Mayor Wilkins said, “a soul is as slippery as a greased weasel”—and you’ll remember enough about ferrets in New Orleans to realize that a greased weasel would be slippery indeed….but also very flexible and fun and playful….and capable of biting…..but do you remember how bright their little eyes are, and could you ever doubt that ferrets’ breath is just as much “spirit” as ours?
And do you, by any chance, remember when your very ancient Greek great-grandmother died, how someone there, because you were so young, asked you whether you understood what had happened: that “the breath has left her?”
Which brings up a whole new line of thoughts about soul, spirit, and essence—the Greek words (in a Dumezilian trifunctional set) Pneuma, Psyche, and Soma….”Breath, Soul (Heart?), and Body.” Greek words in a Dumezilian/Indo-European triad, except not so terribly Indo-European because the Yucatec Maya poetically use the same triad: Ik, Olal, Bak (Spirit = Wind; Olal = Heart/essence/core; Bak = “meat/bone/body”). I have often thought that the Greek/Indo-European Pneuma, psyche, and soma were simply recycled by Sigmund Freud as “Super-Ego”, “Ego”, and “Id.” Certainly Spirit, Heart, and Body correspond with the top three of the Ancient Vedic Castes: Brahmans, Ksatrya, and Vaisya, as well as with Roman Sacerdotes, Equites/Milites, and Plebs (Priests, Cavalry/Soldiers/Warriors, and Commoners), the French Ancien Regime’s “First Estate = Priesthood”, “Second Estate = Nobility”, “Third Estate = Bourgeois” (these were the houses of “Parliament” in pre-Revolutionary France—the House of Lords in England combined both “Lords Temporal” and “Lords Spiritual” of the first two Dumezilian functions), and the Natchez Indians (as recorded by the French in Early 18th Century Louisiana and Mississippi) three exogamous noble classes of “Suns”, “Serpents”, and “Honored People” (below whom were “Les Puants” or “the Stinkards”—compare the Hindu/Vedic “Untouchables”). Even the American Constitution preserves (enshrines) this trifunctional trichotomy by setting up a three-part government divided between a Congress (which deals with taxation & public welfare and represents the “body” of the people), a Presidency which commands the army—-whose first occupant (under the 1787 Constitution, anyhow) was called “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the HEARTS of his Countrymen”), and a Judiciary which is the heir of the Sacred Kingship and Priesthood of Ancient Indo-European Society and whose “judicial” role of decisionmaking really does closely resemble, both in actual function and procedure, the “magical mumblings” of ancient Shamans and priests—and I do not even really mean this as a criticism—it’s just that sometimes it takes a certain “magic” to resolve the disputes which arise in society, even under the best of circumstances—and this is what GOOD judges endeavor to do, just like the first “Judges” of the Israelites whom Moses appointed to settle the disputes of the dozen (or more) original tribes…..
I can tell I’m getting incoherent and rambling here, so I’ll just mention one more thought: While you were still “en ventre ta mere”—your mother showed her mother (your Greek grandmother Nina) her colour sonograms from St. Joseph’s Hospital at 2900 North Lake Shore Drive (St. Joseph’s was right between Diversey and North Commonwealth, directly across the street from where we used to live—and where you began life’s journey….right at the north end of Chicago’s Lincoln Park and right by Diversey Harbor) and your mother looked at the picture of your heart and described you as “psychula” for the very first time: a tiny soul/heart.
It would perhaps be unpoetic to end up with the thought that, as your great-grandfather used to recite from his bachelor’s thesis on the topic of “ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny”—that that notion of life too, of the beating heart, is also shared between humans and animals….even little ferrets…..
And now I have been writing for two hours, because it’s 1:57:17 AM as I quit writing.
Charles Edward Lincoln, III
“Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint”
Deo Vindice/Tierra Limpia
In case of emergency call Peyton Yates Freiman (Texas)
at 512-461-8192 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org