In the corner of my backyard out of view from the house, I have a ring of black stones that forms an imaginary well. Like a character from a Murakami novel, I often imagine climbing down to the dark bottom of that well, where I find all sorts of other spaces: caverns, chambers, libraries, and laboratories, as well as entire imaginary landscapes, usually beaches or lakesides, sometimes a yawning abyss. It feels like there is an entire cosmos down there, big enough to swallow galaxies like raindrops. The goal of this idle reverie is the Delphic maxim, “know thyself,” and we understand ourselves with metaphors of space.
That is why my imaginary well (for others it may be a cellar, cave, or canyon) seems so deep. To look inward is to look down into depth. We imagine the unconscious as some subterranean chasm or fathomless ocean. Post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman writes, in The Dream and The Underworld, “The fundamental language of depth is neither feelings, nor persons, nor time and numbers. It is space. Depth presents itself foremost as psychic structures in spatial metaphors.” Among these metaphors, the ego is a house, the psyche is a labyrinth, and every dream is a mythological descent to the underworld. To dream, to be deep in thought, or to be deep in psychological analysis is to explore this inner geography.
Within this massive space, our memories are tied to more intimate spaces, like kitchens, closets, and bedrooms. Gaston Bachelard writes, in The Poetics of Space, that the house we grew up in “is our corner of the world…. It is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.” We never stop exploring “the universe of the house by means of thoughts and dreams” because to explore the material spaces—the musty attics, damp cellars, and winding corridors—is to explore ourselves. Every drawer, chest, and wardrobe is a container for memory, reverie, and imagination. The house itself is “the topography of our intimate being.” Our very identities are housed in the spaces we knew in childhood.
Thus, the maps we make of outer spaces give our inner worlds structure. Bachelard writes, “… over and beyond our memories, the house we were born in is physically inscribed within us. It is a group of organic habits. After twenty years, in spite of all the other anonymous stairways, we would recapture the reflexes of the ‘first stairway,’ we would not stumble on that rather high step. The house’s entire being would open up, faithful to our own being. We would push the door that creaks with the same gesture, we would find our way in the dark to the distant attic. The feel of the tiniest latch has remained in our hands.”
In this way, inner spaces become ontological. In his Spheres trilogy, Peter Sloterdijk defines human existence as “being in” a particular kind of space, “the place that humans create in order to have somewhere where they can appear as those who they are.” The sphere is his primary metaphor for the space which Being itself inhabits; it can be a womb, a house, a city, or a globe. In particular, “The sphere is the interior, disclosed, shared realm inhabited by humans—in so far as they succeed at becoming humans. Because living always means building spheres, both on a small and a large scale, humans are the beings that establish globes and look out into horizons. Living in spheres means creating the dimension in which humans can be contained.”
To understand something that “is,” to understand its “Being,” is to understand the space it inhabits and creates in relation to other beings. To change ourselves is to leave old spaces for new ones.
So, we are precisely the spaces we define and most importantly share with others. We share the womb with our mothers, we share our beds with our lovers, and we share our hideouts with our coconspirators. Our relationships are defined by the spaces in which we encounter one another. Spheres are imaginary spaces for “being in” together, and Sloderdijk works from “the hypothesis that love stories are stories of form, and that every act of solidarity is an act of sphere formation, that is to say the creation of an interior.” We not only understand “I” in terms of space, we understand “we” as well.
While I am sitting at the bottom of my imaginary well, I see myself as a kind of galaxy with a supermassive black hole at its center. I am its spiral arms and uncanny glow. This may seem inflated and preposterous, but consider the strange and sublime fact that within the vastness of outer space there is an infinitesimally small point in which all of that space is contained. Our own humble minds are just 15 centimeters long, but like jewels in Indira’s net, those tiny spaces contain reflections of an observable universe so large that fifty billion years of light could not trace its edges. The boundaries of space, as we understand them, are the boundaries of the self. To gaze above into outer space is always a gaze below too, into the inner spaces we build to hold our identities, our relationships, and our dreams.
Of all my creative endeavors, the one that has caused the most perplexity among my friends is my “remix” of public domain comic books. Most people who read them struggle to find a story (or even a point.) So, I thought I’d write a little bit about them and direct people to this blog when they say, “I don’t get it. What is it supposed to mean?”
Let’s start with how I make them. The process involves taking 2-3 different comic books of completely different styles, then digitally cutting, pasting, and juxtaposing the characters into new environments so that the original context is lost, and a new, decidedly unsettling, context emerges. It’s a form of surrealistic collage.
This technique started with Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté, in which he cut up and rearranged illustrations from Victorian encyclopedias and novels.
For example, Max Ernst’s images look like this:
By comparison, my cut up and rearranged comics look like this:
So, I’m doing the same sort of thing (as are many other contemporary artists and illustrators,) cutting out images reorganizing them. I ultimately redraw and recolor a large section of individual panels to suit the new flow. My hope is that the juxtaposed elements a quasi-story in which the parts almost-but-don’t-quite fit together. As the viewer struggles to make sense of the sequence, it should feel like the struggle to make sense of random images in a dream. Hopefully, unexpected feelings, sensations, and ideas will be evoked (emotions other than frustration or polite indifference.)
As another example, here is a set of three pages I’ve just finished. I took images from a “Romance Comic” a “Horror Comic” and “Children’s Comic” and mixed the elements together. There is a kind of dream logic to it, but not a rational narrative.
In truth, the crude drawings and lowbrow storylines of these forgotten comics are by themselves a bit sinister. There is violence, perversity, and marginality hidden underneath. My juxtapositions try to amplify those elements.
So do you feel anything scanning these images? Nothing? That’s all right. Juxtaposing images is a bit like mixing chemicals. It may take more time for me to stumble on the combination that catalyzes the reaction I’m looking for.
Although they are encountered mostly as decoration for journal covers and kitchen magnets, I remain fascinated by the abstractions of Klee, Kandinsky, and, more recently, Hilma af Klint. For me, beyond being icons of gift shop kitsch, each of these artists seems to be painting a map of an unseen world – a world of metaphors, symbols, and patterns that exists right underneath our ordinary world. The abstract relationships between the lines, colors, shapes, and textures speak to the synchronistic relationships between real-world objects and imaginary objects. Most literal (or “realistic”) images can’t as easily speak about these webs of interconnected metaphors and intuitions.
So, with all that in mind, I draw my own “Maps of Unseen Worlds.”
A mandala is a geometric figure representing the universe in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism. In Jungian psychology, a mandala is a symbol in a dream, representing the dreamer’s search for completeness and self-unity. Generally speaking, the mandala is a symmetrical image that incorporates a central circle or square with an image of a deity at its center.
With mandalas in mind, I have been drawing images with a black disc at the center, one that represents a paradoxically unrepresentable void or empty space at the center of consciousness or The Self. Beyond the border of the disc are patterns that represent only semi-ordered multiplicities and only semi-symmetrical patterns. It is a “Black Sun” or an inverted mandala. Just as there is a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, there is a void or emptiness at the center of consciousness. This is my way of meditating on that void – drawing it over and over again in different ways.
What I’m seeking in these images is not a sense of completeness or self-unity (ala Jung) that would fill up the void, but rather the kind of inner awareness that keeps this void open. As I draw the boundary between self and void, it shimmers with an eerie glow. Flashes of line, shape, and color emerge from the boundary, patterns that then unfold and circulate in the spaces beyond. There is no creator of these patterns so much as there is a witness who observes and transcribes them.
In these abstractions, I’m drawing the gap between binaries, and I’m hoping that the viewer might linger in the empty hole that is neither subject nor object, inside or outside, past or future. It is a gap, fissure, or void that opens up between things, beneath things, and deep within their core.
Of course, the images I make aren’t always abstract or inspired by early 20th Century Modernism, but the void always seems to show up in the center.
I met Eva Flamm more than a decade ago when she first left her assistant’s job in order to pursue screenwriting full time. Since then, in writers’ groups and coffee houses we have had a long ongoing conversation about numinous experiences and the genre stories they inspire. Here is a snippet of a recent back and forth we had over Zoom.
Sean Hood: We had a conversation once about the Irish concept of “thin places,” places where the boundary between rational and irrational, reality and dream, gets thin. When did you first start getting interested in these sorts of experiences? (Ones that you would later write about.)
Eva Flamm: This has been a fundamental part of me for almost as far back as I can remember, but specifically, when I was ten I had a particular dream. My entire life has been shaped by that dream. There was the person I was before I had the dream and there was the person I was the next morning when I woke up. Everything became different.
Sean Hood: Do you mind talking about it?
Eva Flamm: Well, I don’t think it will really convey the quality of what happened.
Sean Hood: Of course dreams always have a quality that cannot be described in words, but give it a try.
Eva Flamm: Well, when I was ten we moved to a new state and a new city because my dad gotten a new job. So, we went on a road trip across the country. When we finally arrived at our new house,
it was a really dark and stormy night and we didn’t have any furniture unpacked yet. We were all sleeping in the same room on mattresses on the floor. It was it was a pretty unsettled time in my life because I was in this new place and I didn’t feel like I had a whole lot to hold on to.
That night, I went to sleep and I dreamed that I found a sled that could fly. But it wasn’t exactly a sled. That’s what I’m calling it, a sled, but in the dream, there was something about it that was actually something else, something much more than a sled. And the thing, that something more, made the dream… just completely overpowering for me for years.
Sean: What was it the felt overpowering?
Eva Flamm: Um, it was two things. One of the things was the feeling of flying while it was snowing. You know, when it snows, the sky becomes like layers of rooms, like there’s all these spaces, these other rooms above and below, which we don’t usually notice because we can’t see them.
But, when it’s snowing, you become aware of those spaces as snow falls through them – those layers, other worlds, above you that you would inhabit if you could just fly up into them.
So, I’m on this sled, and I’m I’m up there in those layers and I am so happy. Like the biggest high I’ve ever had while not awake. And then I woke up, still in the dream, and I thought “I’ve been dreaming. The sled is not going to be there.” But then I went to the place I had left it, and it was still there.
And so at that point, I was completely convinced it had happened, this thing I had always wanted to happen (an experience of another world) had happened. I had found it. It was really there. But, then I really DID wake up.
For years afterwards, I would look for it, that sled, because I fully expected to find it. It was like I was missing a part of myself. It didn’t seem possible or fair that you could want something that much if it didn’t actually exist.
Sean Hood: Right.
Eva Flamm: And I did actually find it.
Sean Hood: Do tell.
Eva Flamm: I don’t know if it can fly. I haven’t gotten on it yet. But eight years ago, I was I was home visiting my parents, and we went to this antiques barn. There were just tables and tables of kitsch from, um, you know, decades and decades ago, clothes, shoes, silver christening spoons.
I went to the upstairs level. It was freezing, and snow was coming through cracks in the boards, and I came around the corner and there it was. And I knew for sure it was my sled.
You know how when you wake up from a dream, you can remember the vague outlines of the thing, but you already know you have forgotten some important stuff about it?
Sean Hood: I know what you mean.
Eva Flamm: When I saw it, the sled, I immediately remembered what I had forgotten from the dream which was why it was not like other sleds: the runners were made of wood. The whole thing was made of wood. It was carved out of one piece of wood.
I never seen a sled like that before, but when I looked at it, it was like looking at my own face. I knew it so well. It was like when you haven’t seen someone in seven years and then you bump into them, and you suddenly remember: Oh my god, of course, that’s how your LAUGH sounds; that’s how your forehead wrinkles up when you look confused. It’s YOU.
The second thing about it was this: After flying in the dream, the last thing I did was paint the sled red, and I could tell that this sled that I found in the barn had been painted red a very long time ago, but that most of the paint had flaked off.
Sean Hood: I assume you purchased the sled.
Eva Flamm: I did.
Sean Hood: Where is it now?
Eva Flamm: In my parents attic, someday I’ll try it, someday I’ll ride it, but not yet, not for a while.
Sean Hood: And these sorts of experiences inspired you to write stories about other worlds and magical connections?
Eva Flamm: I think the only way to adequately convey something like this to someone else is by telling a story about it. With the story, you can fill in the atmosphere and the context, you can make the experience, no matter how strange, seem so… familiar. And, I think that the more specific the story is the more familiar it will seem to a lot of people.
Sean Hood: And isn’t it interesting that it’s only in the specificity of it that it becomes relatable and universal. Even experiences that are “weird” or “uncanny.”
Eva Flamm: There is a sense in our culture that if you wake up sad, something’s wrong with you, but perhaps we wake upset because there’s another place, a place that we’re familiar with, and we simply would rather be there.
What I want to convey to other people in my stories is this: If you go out there, if you do look for it, something is going to happen. I can’t tell you what it is because I haven’t experienced your dreams. However, it would be extremely unusual if you went out there looking for it and nothing happened.
I metJacques Thelemaque in 1992 when we were both making films on Hi-8 and Super-8. His films have screened at the Sundance Film Festival and the Los Angeles Film Festival, but he is best known for founding the filmmaking collective Filmmakers Alliance. He and I have been writing together in coffee shops and talking about movies and filmmaking for almost thirty years. Here is a snippet of our most recent conversation.
Sean Hood: So, we have been talking about movies that have “meaning,” that have a purpose beyond being just another product for consumption. Can you elaborate on that? What makes a cinematic experience meaningful for you?
Jacques Thelemaque: It has be more than a temporary distraction, and by “distraction” I mean getting emotionally invested in something that is safe but that doesn’t resonate on a deeper level and something that’s pleasurable but not really relevant to viewers’ lives.
So, “meaningful” for me has these two primary things: relevance and resonance.
If a movie or piece of art resonates, it doesn’t necessarily have to have a transformational impact right away, but it lingers in your consciousness, in your thoughts, in your unconsciousness. As it lingers within you, it provides an opportunity to open up to the world.
Sean Hood: So you’re saying even if they don’t spark metamorphosis right then and there, meaningful films push you towards changing in some fundamental or some important way?
Jacques Thelemaque: Yes, changing… or perhaps just opening because sometimes a meaningful film can be purely aesthetic. It doesn’t have any intellectual impact on you, but it opens up the way you see the world, opens up the way you think about yourself, and opens up your own art. If you’re an artist.
Sean Hood: By “open up” do you mean transcend your own boundaries?
Jacques Thelemaque: Yes, your perspective opens, giving you the freedom to act, to think, and to experience in new ways. It resonates within you, either emotionally or intellectually, and you carry that resonance with you beyond the experience. It keeps on playing with you in some way – perhaps you just feel uncomfortable or disturbed for the rest of the day, but something is happening. Something is changing within you, and that’s always a good thing, in my opinion, as long as you are a fairly healthy person, emotionally, intellectually, it’s a good thing. Something’s happening. New possibilities are opening up.
Sean Hood: So that’s resonance. What do you mean by relevance?
Jacques Thelemaque: Just that it means something to you personally – it pertains to stuff that you care about, that holds value for you, emotionally or intellectually. It has some impact on your sense of purpose in this life.
Sean Hood: Can you give me an example of a film that has affected you in this way?
Jacques Thelemaque: Well, the example I like to use a lot is Alien, because it’s NOT an “Art” film. It was a very successful, very commercial movie. It hit all the traditional story beats of a Hollywood film. It’s a well-crafted film in the mainstream sense, but it’s also a “beautiful” film. It resonates with depth, themes, mythology, and metaphor. It’s not just entertainment. It’s deeply disturbing and strangely, unexpectedly beautiful in a way that transcends entertainment.
Sean Hood: Yes. That movie utilizes lots of dark space and sort of strobe effects where images are flashed and the creature is only seen in glimpses and fragments. In those blank spots, those ellipses, we project our own anxieties and fears to try to fill the gap and try to make sense of what we’re seeing. The movie becomes more personal for every individual who watches it. You sort of work through your private anxieties and fears by surviving the experience.
Jacques Thelemaque: And then another commercial film that has resonance and relevance is The Godfather.
It’s a gangster film, but also a family drama. It’s not rooted necessarily in reality, but it plays on a lot of myths about gangsters in order to play with myths about family and honor, about ways of being in the world, and the way the world really works. It’s an exploration of our own family structures and more generally on our social structures.
Sean Hood: I agree.
Jacques Thelemaque: And then The Exorcist – same thing. It taps into very raw, deep, and irrational fears in order to make us think more deeply about our own religious beliefs. It was terrifying, but it also makes us wonder about religious myths – what’s real, what isn’t real, and what do we really believe in?
Sean Hood: So if part of what makes a movie meaningful is its capacity to do something to you, do something that you carry with you afterward, something that could possibly change you, that means that part of the movie is going to be challenging… or in some way NOT pleasant. So, it makes sense to me that the films that you chose were a gangster and two horror films because in these genres people expect to be scared or disturbed as part of the “entertainment.” Filmmakers can slip in meaningful or challenging things in the guise of a “thrill” or “scare.”
It’s interesting that more “serious dramas” can actually end up just reaffirming the ideas and beliefs the audience brought with them.
Jacques Thelemaque: Hallmark films and Lifetime often deal with challenging subjects, but they deal with them in the most superficial – sometimes flat out stupid – ways that don’t challenge us in any way whatsoever. They just make us feel safe.
They are not rooted in any real-life complexities and darkness. Everybody walks away, unchallenged in their feelings, their beliefs; they are just made to make us feel safe and comfortable.
Let’s face it, most audiences don’t want an unpleasant experience because they’re already dealing with so much shit in their personal lives. So these movies are all about hiding you from your own feelings so that you can walk out of the theater feeling pleasant.
So again, the movies that are meaningful for me have those two things: resonance and relevance.
(Feel free to join in this conversation in the comments section below…)
For the last 25 years, I’ve identified myself as a “screenwriter,” but in 2020, I’ll spend most of my creative energy on zines, handmade books, and original artworks, all printed or painted on paper. You may have already gotten some of them in the mail.
Why would I do such a thing? (Besides my ongoing campaign to become Your Most Eccentric Friend?) I have the sense that text and imagery, especially when hand-drawn and hand-lettered and sent via snail mail, gains a peculiar emphasis and potential intimacy. Posting the same “content” on Instagram, Facebook, or Tik Tok would be simpler, quicker, and less intrusive. But “likes” are not what I’m after.
This next part is where I start sounding pretentious to some people, so if you are one of them, take this as a trigger warning. I’m after the peculiar intensity of someone sitting alone with a zine, reading in closely, perhaps bewildered, and asking, “Why would he spend the time and effort making this and sending it to me?” With a zine, I’m not just sharing a random thought or selfie; I’m going through the catalog of mundane ideas, images, and experiences that flood my brain and throwing away 99.99% of them. I’m saying that THIS, this thing on paper that I’m sending you, is especially meaningful, amusing, or important to me. What conveys that intensity is work that went into drawing, printing, and binding it on paper.
My favorite response to the zines or artworks I send is getting sent something in return (an essay, a song, a doodle, a long, thoughtful email, a book, music, or movie recommendation.) Old school “engagement.”
My “office” has looked like a Screenwriter’s cave for 20 years, shelves filled with books on filmmaking, walls covered in movie posters, and corkboards papered in index cards, outlining acts and sequences. Now my “office” looks like a studio, with paints and pencils, glue and cutting boards, brushes and sprays, hitting the Venn diagram intersection of aging cartoonist, hobbyist-bookmaker, and sullen, adolescent riot grrl.
I am still a storyteller, but I’m telling different stories about different things to different people. I have a spreadsheet with the names and addresses of people I am sending these zines and artworks to. Right now, it’s about twenty names long. (See What is An Undergrid?) If you are reading this blog, you are likely on that list, or you are about to be on it very soon. I’m open to expanding and selling my work to the public on Etsy, or publishing in a traditional way, but I’m content if the work never extends beyond what I send to 20-30 people. The number of screenwriting classes I teach will increase, and I’ll introduce myself as “a professor” at cocktail parties, but I feel like this – small and insignificant as it may be – is my real work.
I love the slow depth of crafting a booklet, writing unique sections for each recipient, and then dropping that physical object in a mailbox. Needlessly difficult and entirely without economic value, making zines is something I’ve always wanted to do. I was just too busy rewriting cheesy horror sequels or swords-and-sandals flops to do it.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
It was written by Kate Laffan
According to TheNew Republic magazine in June this year: ‘You will have to make sacrifices to save the planet’, while the US newspaper Metro asks: ‘What would you give up to end climate change?’ These headlines, read from my desk in London where I carry out research in environmental psychology, present us with stark choices: between self and society, wellbeing and morality. It worries me to see pro-environmental action being equated with personal sacrifice in this way. It also makes me wonder whether we could change the content of a third recent headline, this time from Sky News – ‘Majority of Brits unwilling to cut back to fight climate change’ – by reframing how we talk about pro-environmental behaviour.
A growing body of research suggests that, rather than posing a threat to individual wellbeing, adopting a more sustainable lifestyle represents a pathway to a more satisfied life. Numerous studies have found that people who purchase green products, who recycle or who volunteer for green causes claim to be more satisfied with their lives than their less environmentally friendly counterparts. In the most systematic exploration of this relationship to date, the social psychologist Michael Schmitt at Simon Fraser University in Canada and colleagues found that, of the 39 pro-environmental behaviors examined, 37 were positively linked to life satisfaction (the exceptions being the use of public transport or carpooling, and running the washer/dryer only when full).
Digging deeper, the authors of this 2018 paper found that the strongest positive relationships were between life satisfaction and those behaviors involving a cost in money, time or effort. So, participating in local pro-environmental activities is far more predictive of life satisfaction than, say, turning off the tap while brushing your teeth (despite it being a more effortful undertaking). In complementary vein, when the psychologist Stacey Ann Rich at La Trobe University in Melbourne and colleagues looked at people on the far end of the sustainable lifestyle scale, they found that ‘voluntary simplifiers’ – or people who freely choose to live frugally – report higher life satisfaction than nonsimplifiers across several different studies. Far from suggesting that people lose out when they put significant effort into living a sustainable life, it seems that the more you put in the more you stand to gain.
This is promising evidence, but the measure used – life satisfaction – can miss some of the potential nuances in play when people think (and feel) about their lives as they go about them. My own research at the London School of Economics addresses this issue by examining how pro-environmental behaviors relate to different types of wellbeing. In particular, I make a distinction between hedonic wellbeing, which relates to the emotions that people experience, and eudemonic wellbeing, which reflects their sense of purpose.
There are good reasons to think that this distinction might matter. Some pro-environmental behaviors can boost people’s mood: imagine cycling to work rather than driving through central London traffic, for example. Other behaviors that are typically carried out on autopilot, such as recycling, might not be expected to have any impact at all. Still others might cause people to experience feelings of stress, as anyone who has recently tried to have a short, cold shower will attest.
Contrast this with how we might expect pro-environmental behavior to relate to people’s sense of purpose. The environmental psychologist Tim Kasser – an expert on materialism and wellbeing, and now emeritus professor at Knox College in Illinois – has argued that pro-environmental behavior can contribute to people’s needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence – all of them key drivers of eudemonic wellbeing. More directly, to the extent that people perceive engagement in a wide range of pro-environmental behaviors as ‘doing the right thing’, we might expect them all to contribute to people’s sense of purpose.
As part of my PhD, I examined these ideas using questionnaire data from a sample of more than 5,000 English residents. I found that people’s levels of happiness or anxiety were independent of their engagement in pro-environmental behavior on the previous day. This suggests that, while individuals might not derive pleasure from engaging in pro-environmental behavior, nor do these behaviors generally come at an emotional cost. At the same time, my research indicates that the more pro-environmental actions that people engage in, the more worthwhile they consider their activities to be overall.
When taken together, the life-satisfaction evidence and the results of my own work fly in the face of the view of pro-environmental behavior as a sacrifice and point instead to a range of potential psychological benefits of going green. We are still in the early stages of understanding what’s driving these apparent benefits, but recent work by the economists Heinz Welsch and Jan Kühling at the University of Oldenburg in Germany, among other scholars, suggests that conforming with social norms, having a positive self-image and opportunities to socialize all play a role.
If you style pro-environmental behavior as onerous, then moral appeals of the ‘You will have to make sacrifices to save the planet’ kind are never far behind. Better then, is to encourage people to take action on climate change by presenting environmental issues as personally relevant. The subjective wellbeing evidence gives us an opportunity to move our focus away from what people might have to give up or do without, and towards the potential gains of living not worse but differently. Such positive messages might better motivate pro-environmental actions that contribute directly to individual wellbeing, while at the same time safeguarding the wellbeing of others and of generations to come.
Kate Laffan is a fellow in the department of psychological and behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In November 2019, she takes up a Marie Curie fellowship at the Geary Institute for Public Policy at University College Dublin. She lives in London.
Sanjay Sahgal is a forensic psychiatrist who creates strange and brilliant cartoons on ShadowToons.com. He also writes essays, satire, and most recently a two-thousand-word comment on my Persophone Images. I wanted to make sure other Undergrid readers didn’t miss it, so I am publishing it as its own blog article here.
Sanjay flatters both me and the drawings (he is an old, dear friend who would support me and applaud stick figure drawings if I chose to publish them,) but I think it is a great example of a simple writing prompt (the images) leading to creativity and reverie. As he puts it, “images (even with titles) are like dreams and the viewer of the image can find and experience multiple meanings and emotions respectively, occasionally even contradictory meanings and emotions existing simultaneously.”
There is so much to admire about these images.
First, the images themselves each convey an unsettling sense of entrapment. In Persephone Falling, the subject (assume to in some way reverberate with the myth of the cursed Persephone) is in a state of apparent resignation and fatigue. She is trapped, if appears, with no sound way to escape: the visceral organic linings resemble a stomach and the “only way out” a birth canal. However, it is the other end a birth canal. Unlike typical humans, who are “stuck” in organic traps of wombs and destined to be released through the birth canal into the open sunlit world, in the first image the subject seems to have experienced a kind of contrapositive of this standard stage in human reproduction. Visually, she appears to have come through the birth canal INTO a trapped, organic womb/captive-space. Unlike infants who exit the birth canal and cry tears of intoxicated new arrival into a world of suffering the nature of which they are innocent, this subject appears to exit the birth canal, resigned and tearless, into a seemingly safer but isolate world of organic darkness.
In Persephone Reverie, the subject is lit, but lit from below. What would more typically be the source of light (an orb high and above her head) is more of an absorber of light from a different source. The expression of the subject suggests a gratitude or longing for the source of light coming up from beneath her. But with her hands behind her back and her mouth signaling melancholy, it’s as if she has been here before, that she knows that the light won’t bring her lasting joy, that she knows what comes next and it’s as if she is trapped again.
The third image is perhaps the one with the subject having the most visually interpretable facial expression and posture. Her rolled eyes and crossed arms clearly signal a frustrated resignation, a sense of “here we go again”, a sense of powerlessness but not fear. Fatigue and lack of hope but not danger. Again the flood of light comes from below, stronger in intensity, and the orb-that-would-typically-be the-sun looks like a kind of sponge, not even reflecting but absorbing the light. It also can be seen as a dark halo, marking not the blessed or sacred but the cursed or defiled. The tile of Persephone Lost along with this imagery suggests that the subject is not lost in the sense of not knowing where she is or how to get back home but lost in the sense of a “lost cause” or a lost game.
It may be a coincidence that subject’s name is Persephone (I don’t know what the subject’s name is nor am I certain if the subject is “real” or an amalgam of a few models or even a creation of the artist’s imagination). But let’s choose to take the name to be integral to the images and see where meanings can unfold. After all, even if the subject’s name happens to be Persephone without any reference to the myth (I once met a woman in her 20’s named Cassandra who had no idea that her name referenced a mythological character who was cursed to tell the truth but never be believed, for example), the viewer of the work does incorporate the myth of Persephone into the images. The viewer has no choice really. The name is not common. For example, the name isn’t Helen, which is a common enough contemporary name such that it might be stretch for a viewer to apply significance to the name (as in harkening back to the mythology of Helen of Troy).
No. Persephone is too dense with meaning as a name. Reviewing the myth, Persephone was a child born of incest between the gods (Zeus and his sister Damater). That’s enough for any god or human to bear but it then so happened that, at the age of sexual majority, her paternal uncle, Zeus’s brother Hades, “abducts” her. The myth is careful to point out that this word, “abduction” is a euphemism the purpose of which is misdirection, that is, Zeus was indeed aware of Hades’s plan and permitted it to occur. So we have a daughter born out of incest who is tacitly given to her father’s brother for sexual congress. Moreover, that brother, Hades, just happens to live in a realm of complete darkness—the underworld, the world of the dead. It is only Damater’s nagging that get’s Zeus to request that Hades return his daughter. At this point, Persephone is no more than an object for her immortal parent gods to bicker over. Hades, the weaker of the two brothers but also the one with the shitty job of ruling over the land of darkness, despair, and death, is not threatened but asked by Zeus, at the urging of Damater, to return the daughter Persephone to the sunlight of Olympus. Hades considers and, being relatively reasonable, agrees to return Persephone so long as she hasn’t eaten or drunk anything while captive in the underworld. What an odd criterion? Surely even the daughter of the gods has to eat or drink. It turns out to be the case that Persephone, not content with her plight as Hades’s captive, manages to limit her food intake to just 6 pomegranate seeds.
Zeus is like: “what the fuck do I do now?” Damater on the one hand is pestering him and making him feel guilty for permitting their incestuously conceived daughter to be taken into the underworld by Hades and, well, Hades is now partially-committed to the “abduction”. After all, Persephone did eat 6 pomegranate seeds in the underworld and so the underworld (seeds no less) is permanently a part of her.
So, as if Persephone were a toy without agency, Zeus concludes that Persephone will spend 6 months, one for each seed consumed un the dark underworld, seeds that are now a part of her, with Hades but also that she can spend 6 months (the remainder of the year) in Olympus in the open sunlight apparently delighting her mother, Damater. The myth is such that Persephone’s feelings and agency about the whole drama, which was sparked by her transition from child to womanhood, are discounted in Zeus’s judgment and decision.
And thus Persephone spends half her life in utter darkness with Hades and half her life in a sunlit world on the peaks of Olympus, all the while being aware that her cyclical eternal curse is the result of petty and egoic machinations of her incestuous parents and her uncle.
There are many ways to view this myth. Most often scholars associate it with the wheat harvest/cycle, which produces sunlight wheat fields half the year and degraded soil and starvation grounds for other half of the year.
These images, however, suggest something much deeper in the human collective psyche. Persephone (or the subject) is: 1) trapped in an unpleasant compromise arranged entirely by her egotistical parents and uncle; 2) seems to have no choice, to have been treated like an object in a trade rather than a sentient being with choices and inclinations of her own; 3) seems to be aware that what awaits her for the foreseeable future is an endless cyclical movement from light to dark, from fresh air to the stank of death, from one set of incestuous and egotistical parents to an equally self-preoccupied paternal uncle, all of whom view her more as an object to be moved and used than as a being with agency and choice.
With his background, the subject’s resignation, fatigue, sense of being trapped organically, and existence in a sort of upside down world where light comes from what is typically darkness (land, ground, holes, bedrock) and darkness comes from what is typically light (the sun or orb). it’s no wonder that the titles include falling, reverie, and lost. The subject is falling in that falling implies a lack of personal agency (in the most concrete terms it’s gravity that is in control but there are other more nuanced and metaphorical ways of falling). The subject is in reverie, which Cambridge Dictionary defines as “a state of being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts” because, despite the whole fucked up arrangement imposed upon her, she does get sunlight half the time, even it is an imprisoned sunlight, a type of resigned and predictable comfort that lends itself to enjoying it while it lasts, to daydreaming because one knows in advance that the cycle of night/real-dreaming, the underworld of darkness, is going to take her under again soon. The subject is lost, once again, as in the use of the word similar to the phrased “a lost cause”. She knows where she is so she’s not lost literally. Indeed, quite the opposite, through repeated cycles over eons, Persephone knows exactly where she is at any give time. In this way, the title can be read as “lost” in the win/lost sense. Persephone lost. She didn’t win, which would be to have the freedom of choice and chance to forge her future like even mere mortal young women are most often offered. Instead, she lost because she has no choices. Her parents and uncle have fixed her life into a never-ending pendulum from darkness to light. It can easily be seen as a curse of sorts and the subject’s expressions in all three images contain strands of resignation, fatigue, defeat, and dare I say hopelessness? Persephone lost. Indeed, she wasn’t even given a chance to win the game. She lost by forfeit to the greater powers of her incestuous parents and unscrupulous paternal uncle, all three of whom were thinking of nothing but themselves and all three of whom offered Persephone no choices.
On a more present-day level, these three images capture something of what I personally see in young people today. Our generation has handed them a sort of Fate that resulted entirely from our egotistical preoccupations. No longer do young people have the basic gift of knowing that there will be an inhabitable earth bequeathed to them. No longer do they have the basic gift of some shred of true belief that democracy is a kind of ladder and that a touch of meritocracy is mixed into the American dream. Instead, they are handed a climate in crisis with no viable solution or even cooperation to find a solution in sight. Instead, they are handed an oligarchy cloaked as a democracy wherein they are given a future wherein, absent a civil war, the uber-wealthy will become wealthier and the thinning middle class will (in California at least) will pay (for now—it may get worse) 48cents on the dollar in Federal and State income taxes. They are given a world filled with existential hotspots—wars are always a part of the inheritance but this generation is inheriting wars AND 1000’s of hydrogen bombs owned by Russia, the USA, and even rogue military nations that are destitute and desperate like Pakistan. They can read as easily as any of their elders that the consensus of physicists and climatologists is that the detonation of even one hydrogen bomb in warfare (a hydrogen bomb is approximately 1000 times more powerful than the atom bombs dropped on two Japanese cities several decades ago) will more likely than not create a global “nuclear winter” and shift human social structures and survival in ways not yet imaginable.
Have we bequeathed our children the Fate of Persephone? Does the subject in each image convey the resignation, fatigue, anxiety, and hopelessness of most of today’s entering college freshmen? I see it. I see it in society but I also see this portrayed rather poignantly in these three related images.
Of course, images (even with titles) are like dreams and the viewer of the image can find and experience multiple meanings and emotions respectively, occasionally even contradictory meanings and emotions existing simultaneously. However, pondering these three images, this is what comes to my consciousness.