We, She and He – 3 books by Robert A. Johnson

We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York; Harper One, 1983)

She: Understanding Feminine Psychology, Revised Edition (New York; Harper, 1989)

He: Understanding Masculine Psychology, Revised Edition (New York; Harper, 1989)

Sometimes I wonder why I read Jungian psychology books – they always send me into such a spin! But then, that is exactly why I read them – the desire for transformation. Wrestling with God like Jacob so that by cerebral understanding I might at least have the illusion that I can contain the pains and joys of life.

I read He and She a while ago in order to work on questions of gender. RJ takes the Fisher King/Parsifal/Holy Grail myth in He, and the Psyche-Eros myth in She, and uses them allegorically to draw insights about the essence of male and female psychology. It’s refreshing to read theory done through story telling: it relates to a different part of our brain and so draws out different insights. Personally, I relate to Psyche’s quest quite strongly and I do find it helpful as a tool for self-reflection. I think that this would be true regardless of one’s conclusion about gender as ‘essence’ – am I ‘essentially’ female and can be no other by virtue of my biology, or is gender more determined socially and therefore has only culturally specific articulations.

Here’s a link to an english translation of the original Psyche myth by Apuleius.

And the original Fisher King myth in its English incarnation by Thomas Malory.

The present reason why I’ve just read We is because I am working with the analogy of falling-in-love as a description of ‘conversion.’ That’s been really fun and I has gone into a couple of different projects about love and spirituality: an essay for general readership; a sermon series; and a prelude to my ongoing academic study. In We RJ reflects on the myth of Tristan and Iseult (also known as Iselda) from the middle ages. Tristan is a fine upstanding Knight, loyal to his King, until he accidentally drinks a love potion with the King’s intended bride, Iseult. They fall madly in love and defy all sense of right and common sense in order to be together.

If you want to read the Tristan-Iseult myth go here.

RJ discusses the psychology of love as a cultural phenomena in the West. He describes it as our obsession; our pathology; our replacement for religion in a secular age. As our culture moved away from seeking meaning in religious notions of transcendence, we projected those spiritual needs onto our human relationships. Romance has become our religion. Indeed! A case in point: a saw the new Working Dog movie last week, called Any Questions for Ben? (For overseas readers: these Working Dog are Australian legends!) Poor Ben is going through a quarter life crisis: he feels cut adrift, lost, yearning for something more and for his life to ‘mean something.’ So does he turn to religion, spirituality or even psychotherapy? No, he turns to love! He finds it within himself to commit to one woman and trusts in that relationship to satisfy these inadequacies he feels.

There is a pressing need to address the unrealistic expectations on intimate human relationships of all kinds – parental, romantic, platonic, etc. If we seek ‘god’ in a human person we will always be disappointed. But more subtlety, if we seek the source for our own personal transformation in another person, we too easily fail to integrate any fleeting transcendence within ourselves. It is not that God is absent from human relationships, indeed, frequently we experience the wonderful grace of God in our intimate relationships, but the source of God is not located solely within them as the object of our affection. It is a glimpse of heaven, but we live here and now on earth.

Here’s a little passage:

“In the symbolism of the love potion we are face to face suddenly with the greatest paradox and the deepest mystery in our modern Western lives: What we seek constantly in romantic love is not human love or human relationship alone; we also seek a religious experience, a vision of wholeness. Here is the meaning of the magic, the sorcery, the supernatural in the love potion. There is another world that is outside the vision of our ego-minds: It is the realm of psyche, the realm of unconscious. It is there that our souls and our spirits live, for unknown to our conscious Western minds, our souls and spirits are psychological realities, and they live on in our psyches without our knowledge. And it is there, in the unconscious, that God lives, whoever God may be for us as individuals.” (p. 53)

I still have a barrage of questions (which is probably quite obvious in the obscurity of some of this post) but the fact that archetypal theory has the capacity to articulate the quest for Life in God, is to me, invaluable.

Committed: A Love Story by Elizabeth Gilbert

(London: Bloomsbury, 2010) Different editions seem to have different subtitles! Weird!  I read the kindle edition.

A friend of mine had read this book and wanted to know what I thought of it.  Elizabeth Gilbert is famous for writing Eat, Pray, Love and this is kind of (in the broadest sense of the word) a sequel and has itself become a New York Times best seller.  In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert describes her quest for self-discovery post-divorce.  She recaptures life through Eating in Italy, Praying in India and Loving in Bali.  In Committed, Gilbert describes what happens to her Love Relationship when forced with the realities of life over the long haul.

Gilbert and her soulmate are confronted with the social necessity of marriage when Felipe is refused entry into the United States, where they had taken up residency as a couple.  Another year of soul-searching travel ensues as they submit to the bureaucratic requirements of visa by marriage.  Neither Elizabeth nor Felipe had any desire for (re)marriage and the book records Gilbert’s sometimes tortured attempts to find a cultural interpretation that works for them.  It’s mostly entertaining story telling, and I know enough of the original scholarship to see she’s done her research properly, so it’s actually a pretty good, accessible exploration into the social construction of marriage.  Best of all it has a happy ending!

The one thing I hadn’t come across before was the work of Ferdinand Mount, that Gilbert herself was surprised to unearth. ‘Sir William Robert Ferdinand Mount, 3rd Baronet,’ a proper English conservative by any stretch of the imagination, wrote a book called The Subversive Marriage (1992).  He points out that no totalitarian regime in history has ever fully conquered the privacy of the marriage bed.  Heres a quote:

“The family is a subversive organization.  In fact, it is the ultimate and only consistently subversive organization.  Only the family has continued throughout history, and still continues, to undermine the State.  The family is the enduring permanent enemy of all hierarchies churches and ideologies.  Not only dictators, bishops and commissars but also humble parish priests and cafe intellectuals find themselves repeatedly coming against the stony hostility of the family and its determination to resist interference to the last.”

So if you’re after a popular version of some of the reddress themes on sex, love and marriage, I’m happy to recommend Committed.

I really enjoyed some of the ‘famous quotes’ she uses to start her chapters, here’s some of my favourites:

“Marriage is a friendship recognized by the police.”  – Robert Louis Stevenson

“be of love (a little)/ more careful/ than of everything” – e.e. cummings

“Today the problem that has no name is how to juggle work, love, home and children.” – Betty Friedan, The Second Stage

“Of all the actions of a man’s life, his marriage does least concern other people; yet of all the actions of our life, ’tis the most meddled with by other people.” – John Selden, 1689

Marriage Right Vs Rite, Compass on ABC TV

Compass Program: Marriage Right Vs Rite  (ABC TV, Sunday 10th July 2011)

Well done Geraldine Doogue for getting all the important issues in the ‘marriage debate’ out on the table.  The ‘informal dinner’ format didn’t fool anyone but she certainly managed her guest list well for scintillating conversation!  The voices include (Anglican) Bishop Rob Forsyth, the (Baptist) Rev. Nathan Nettleton, Geoff Thomas, (RC) Father Frank Brennan, Julie McCrossin and Dennis Altman.  You can read the transcript or watch the program via the ABC website.

When it comes to the Legislation of Marriage I want to ask:

  • what is the role of the State in intimate relationships?
  • how are social institutions such as marriage constructed and defined?
  • when social institutions change and adapt at what point does the State adapt – progressively or conservatively?
  • what is the relationships between religious communities and the State in a secular society?
  • is the law’s role in ‘protecting the weak’ different to ‘protecting the rights of free choice’?
  • what is the role of ritual in the establishment of personal and relationship identity?
  • how are ‘morality’ and ‘justice’ worked out within a religious framework?

I think the discussion pretty much confirmed that we are no where near consensus, either in the Church or in Society, on these foundational matters of marriage as a social institution, regardless of what happens with marriage laws in Australia.  Lucky Jesus gave us one universal that remains no matter how we Christians resolve these big social issues:  ‘love the Lord your God and love your Neighbour as Yourself.’

Now there’s a good question:  How do we legislate love?

‘Romantic Love vs. Marriage: A Psychoanalytic Approach’ by Keelin Lord

(In Essai, vol 5, issue 1, article 30.)

Back on 4th April , when reflecting on Joseph Campbell‘s mythological wisdom on love, I voiced some questions and concerns about romance and marriage in western culture.  It’s always great to meet others on the same journey as ourselves, especially when they validate our own perspective!  This article articulates the same social concern about the disconnect between romance and marriage.

First, Lord references recent neuroscience research which has begun to map some of the brain activity associated with ‘being in love.’  Helen Fisher is primarily responsible for bringing this research into being, by sticking 40 people who were ‘in love’ under an MRI scan.  As a biological-anthropologist she proposes an evolutionary theory to explain the existence of different brain behaviour for the sex drive, romantic attraction, and long-term affection.  The human brain evolved a sex drive to get people out there looking to re-create themselves, the attraction drive to narrow down the field to a suitable mating partner, and the affection drive to keep the partnership together long enough to have children.  I think Fisher’s distinction between these three basic human drives that function in intimate relationships is particularly helpful – sexual arousal, romantic attraction and committed affection exist separately before they sometimes exist together and I recommend the TED lecture by Fisher if you interested to know more.

Lord then maps the evolution of marriage and romance as social constructs in the last 500 years, singling out the industrial revolution as the most influential development which shifted the need for a social and economic basis for marriage.  Taking contemporary American cinema as evidence for the current perpetuating myths of romance and marriage, Lord shows how the former is seen as the exclusive entry into the later.

This is where Lord turns back to neuro-psychology to explain why ‘falling in love’ is a particularly unstable grounds for the establishment of long term relationships.  Psychologists consider falling in love to be an addiction: it triggers the same chemical reactions as cocaine and stimulates the brain areas which stimulate obsession, craving, physical dependence, personality change, distorted perspective and loss of self-control!

Interestingly, Helen Fisher’s research included couples who were still in love after 30 years of marriage which revealed that some of this brain activity was still present, whilst the anxiety producing activity had been replaced by seratonin inducing calmness and security – so staying in love long term is possible – it just doesn’t happen very often.  (Dr. Earl Henslin reckons in about 8-9% of couples!)

Lord’s response is to suggest that we return to a story about love as an art form.  That loving well needs to be learn, practiced, discovered.  A bit like a 12 step program for transitioning from the addiction of romance to a healthy integration of sex, attraction and affection!  This sounds pretty much exactly where I ended up in my own musings, but with a bit of brain science thrown in with the social anthropology.  She writes:

In conclusion, Americans need to realize that although our country allows us more freedom for individual happiness, those freedoms do not necessarily serve a practical function. We are culturally free to marry for love, yet our highly demanding social structure weakens our opportunity to focus on and obtain that romance. While we no longer need extended family support systems, we still need to realize that only focusing on our individual selves can breed lack of self discipline, resulting in such things as romantic affairs. Our strongly individualistic country needs to regain the value of having utmost concern for those we love. Only then will we gain individual satisfaction.  This includes the ability and our own willingness to see our beloved as they are, imperfections and merit, rather than continuing a Hollywood romance based on fantasy. This flaw in our country’s values supports Harriet Hawkins idea that society is to blame for the failure of romance (Hawkins 115). While she speaks of Shakespeare’s lovers being situated in a conflict opposed by war and feudal impulses, Fromm speaks of lovers being situated in an economy too demanding for love’s
commitment. This social control, along with the ability of romance to cloud one’s judgment, explains why Othello took not only Desdemona’s life, but his own as well. They were in a situation with no extended support system and Othello’s obligation was to commit himself as a general, while Desdemona was put second. Considering his duty to the state was expected to come first, Othello had reason to put his trust in his men. This took precedence over his duty to Desdemona and her words. Othello’s service to the state caused strain and failure in his marriage. In short, our social system needs to change, while we need to grasp the knowledge and essentials for the success of romantic love, or marriage will continue to suffer.

You can read the whole article here.

The Power of Myth: Interviews with Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers

(New York: Doubleday, 1988)

I’m not sure I could have read this prior to entering the second half of my life – it’s a very ‘grown up’ book!  Joseph Campbell applied his insatiable mind to various academic disciplines and traveled extensively pursuing his passion for the human habitat of mythology.  This book is a record of several interviews that took place late in Campbell’s life with journalist and fan Bill Moyers – reading it is very like finding yourself in an unexpectedly fascinating dinner party conversation.

Mythology is fascinating.  I am struck by the persistence of the human instinct to evolve stories which explain life, death and universe.  Then the stories themselves are persistent in the commonality of their themes – love, loss, pain, joy, power and powerlessness.  Karl Jung labeled these ‘persistencies’ archetypes of the collective human (un)conscious, but for me, mythology keeps the archetypes in their most meaningful setting – stories that make sense of universal human experience.

As a Christian, I have particular stories specific to my experience of encountering God – ‘revelation’ as we like to call it in Theology.  There needs to be careful rendering around those narratives because in one sense they are mythology like all others and yet in another sense if we commit to a belief in Revelation, they take on an ‘other’, through God’s incarnation of Godself as the Word of God.  Questions of beyond-human knowing aside however, the main point of myths is to tell us something about ourselves and Christian mythology in this way operates on the same level as all cultural mythologies.  Studying mythology is another of my little projects this year, exploring the imago dei.

In the wonderful mythological themes explored by Moyers and Campbell (the inward journey; sacrifice and bliss; the hero and adventure; eternal life) the most poignant for me at this point in time were the conversations around ‘the gift of the goddess’ and ‘tales of love and marriage’.  The fact that these themes grab my attention is indeed part of the point of mythological stories – we lock on to what is relevant at the right time that it is relevant and travel with those stories swishing around in our brain for however long they are relevant!

Moyers opens the discussion on love by saying, “Love is such a vast subject that – well, if I came to you and said, ‘Let’s talk about love,’where would you begin?” Campbell responds, “I’d begin with the troubadours in the twelfth century.” And so begins the history of ‘love as we know it’, that Jung describes as a kind of insanity!  Campbell:  “Before that [ie. the troubadours] love was simply Eros, the god who excites you to sexual desire.  This is not the experience of falling in love the way the troubadours understood it.  Eros is much more impersonal than falling in love.”  Hence, a story of love is (re)discovered for western cultures – love which leads to suffering joy.  The troubadours “celebrated life directly in the experience of love as a refining, sublimating force, opening the heart to the sad bittersweet melody of being through love, one’s own anguish and one’s own joy.”  And all this, needs to be understood alongside marriage!

There is no doubt that love and marriage need an overhaul in western culture – the old mythologies have lost their power to define relationships in meaningful ways.  My parent’s generation stayed together because the commitment to the concept/ institution/ mythology of marriage (and family) was greater than individual happiness.  My generation conflated the notions of romantic love and marriage in a way which has reduced marriage to the songs the troubadours sang, yet knew was distinct from the life-long man-woman relationship which ordered households and kingdoms.  Yet a return to the marriage mythologies of previous generations is not going to work because we have deconstructed the social systems which made those stories workable.  Marriage is dependent upon localised family supports;  confidence in distinct gender identities each with their own support systems (NB roles and identities are two distinct things);  household systems in which children can be raised by a team of people not just one or two individuals;  and sexuality with the power to evoke sacred mystery.  Similarly, Romantic Love is losing its power to transform because we have commodified it;  sterilized its sexuality;  and exchanged the notion of self-sacrifice, upon which Love depends, into self-fulfillment, upon which Narcissism draws.

I’ve given up pretending I have any answers when it comes to Love and Marriage – but I do think we could start telling each other some different non-Hollywood stories.  Personally, I’ve been (re)imagining Psyche and Eros – if that means anything to you well and good, if not… Google it – it’s a good story!