Sunday, May 17, 2015

Like Rome

I don't remember where it is that Freud says that the mind is like Rome. Or maybe that's not exactly the way he puts it. Maybe my memory is playing a trick: building something new on top of what's buried further down. (OK, Google settled this almost instantly: it's from Civilization and Its Discontents--but as far as I'm concerned, that's not only cheating, it short-circuits the fertile pleasures of not knowing for sure.)

Beneath the streets we travel, beneath the gardens we plant, beneath the houses we build: a past that may disappear beneath the surface but doesn't go away. The underground stream that rises up into a basement. The sinkhole that opens when the roof of a buried chamber collapses. The thud of stone against the shovel in the garden. The three columns that remain of an ancient temple, beside a six-lane thoroughfare. The amphitheater capped by apartments and TV antennae. The expressway that follows the route of a 2000-year-old road. That's what the complexity of our minds is like, Freud says.
Except that the state of our mind isn't just like Rome in the present moment: every period of its history is alive and vibrating in the here and now. As though the Rome of six-lane avenues and electric lines were also, simultaneously, the Rome of Caesar and Cicero, of the Empire in decline, of the Renaissance Popes, of the Risorgimento, of Mussolini, of Fellini. You can buy holographic postcards in Rome of the principal ancient monuments and watch them oscillate back and forth, as you tilt them up and down, between a photograph of the ruins and a reconstruction of the buildings' original state.
That's a little more like our minds, in the complex indeterminacy of the relation between our conscious awareness and the unconscious or forgotten layers that complicate and enrich our experience. Except that our minds contain strata upon strata, not just two. Think of the times you've gone back to your family of origin and found that suddenly, once again, you're fifteen years old. Or six. Or ten. Or (perhaps happily, perhaps hellishly) all of the above.
St. Augustine likened our memory to an inexhaustible storehouse. Julian of Norwich called our souls a noble city in the midst of which God's throne is set. Buddhist masters like Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön talk about befriending our feelings and learning to care for them, rather than brushing them aside and neglecting them, or else projecting them outwards as though those around us bore responsibility for them. Among contemporary queer authors who get this, graphic novelist Allison Bechdel stands out at the moment for her two memoirs of her relationships with her father and mother, respectively: Fun Home and Are You My Mother?
Coming to know our own minds better, to wander around and descend through the complexity of those layers, is one of life's great adventures. The best practices of psychotherapy are driven by lively excitement to know ourselves, rather than by the misery that may have brought us to our shrink in the first place--by the desire to make friends with our unconscious, rather than trying to hunt it down and kill it. The best practices of mindful erotic self-awareness are also about lively curiosity and acceptance of who we are, and how we came to be who we are, as something wondrous and worthy of curiosity and respect, as well as celebration. Impatience, shame, and judgment are the adversaries of genuine insight and growth.

In the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." It's the water that flows underground that sustains our gardens.

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