Karen Laub-Novak: Writings
A current under sea
Seventeen years ago I first discovered St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, mystical theologians and doctors of the church who lived and wrote in the fifteenth century. Their writings gave a glimpse of the interior life. A vision of the soul. Stages of self understanding. The importance of one's own experience. A vision of pain and the tranquility, of reflection and action.
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College years seem filled with tension. Practical world at odds with the poetic world. Visions and ideas in the mind and the failure to execute them. A glimpse, at times, of a uni-filed way. Sometimes a moment of "hitting the mark." But most of the time living in the shadows. Free floating ideas, emotions in all directions, fantasy fragmented. And perhaps causing the most tension: conflict between the masculine and the feminine, conflict between what culture seemed to expect and what the interior vision seemed to want. My ambitions were masculine. But my style was quite, indirect, "feminine." I wanted a career, but also a family, and was frequently advised that the two didn't mix. I began reading books on psychology, but (except for Karen Horney) with little satisfaction. By chance, in an art history paper I chose to compare the visions of St. Catherine of Siena with the Church art of the period. In St. Catherine, I glimpsed an idea; only a moment's recognition of an interior model. I then began reading other mystical literature … the Cloud of Unknowing, Dionysius the Areopagite, Meister Eckhart, Boehme, Suso, and finally, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. In the Interior Castle, St. Teresa seemed to describe my own inner confusions. She spoke of the soul as a castle in which there are many rooms of self-understand. Some of these rooms are above, below, and to each side. At the center of the castle is God… the unitive way. The pursuit of self-understanding - and then of further goals - is demanded of all and possible for all. The path is not linear. The rooms surround us. The soul must enter within itself. The first rooms it enters are those of self-understanding.
The dominant theme of both St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross is darkness. "Remember that in few of the mansions of this castle are we free from struggles with the devils." As we move toward further rooms, we desire the security of previous rooms.
Furthermore, St. Teresa and St. John seemed to be describing more than the interior life of prayer. I suddenly saw art, the process of painting, and its interior stages in a new way. The process that they described for prayer seemed to reflect the creative act also. It was only a glimmer of recognition … vision and experience were far distant. Only years of practice brought the two closer together.
I had retreated into my imaginary monastic cell. I spent much of my time in a dormitory room cluttered with unfinished art projects and stacks of books on mystical theology. At the same time other activities were going on. Art classes, working in the dorm as a "counselor," job hunting, dating, trying to write and do research for a thesis. Nothing seemed to fit together. Since those years a great deal has happened. Teaching, moving, marriage, one child, art shows, lectures, travel, dirty dishes, more teaching, two children, commercial art work, printmaking, painting, writing, more dirty dishes. Reading, sculpture, conferences, Zen mysticism, three children, more dirty dishes.
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St. John said that the center of the soul is God. My soul is what I am. I am more than a role in society. My soul has other responsibilities. A message came clear; man or woman, each of us has a responsibility to go beyond shallow images of the self, to move deeper into our own soul, to challenge and develop all our faculties: understanding, will, memory.
By memory, St. John means all apprehensions past and present, material and imaginal, natural and supernatural. By understanding, he means the light of intelligence. By will, eh means the determination, the direction, the longing of the spirit.
Thirdly, we are to transcend this conscious activity, this conscious understanding of the self, this conscious development of our skills and faculties. We are to transcend all our own faculties, because this self is larger than they. We must practice a special kind of "letting go." We must let the anima take possession.
There is an aggressive, driving, striving self (animus), and a quiet, serene, strong self (anima). Both are indispensable; the anima is deeper, more central. And finally we must turn this understanding to action. The reason for quiet and detachment is to be more present; to act well; to hit the mark. St. Teresa says: "Truth is in the action." We are to love our neighbor well; to hit the right behavior exactly.
If the soul is to be whole, it must have the attributes both of the masculine and of the feminine principle - the animus and the anima. To fail to balance these is to block the interior journey. When St. John of the Cross spoke of God as the center of the soul, God was not a Father. God is more than our greatest faculties, more than understanding, memory, or will. God is the night, the abyss, pointed toward both by anima and by animus.
St. John and St. Teresa taught me to respect psychological stages; the necessity of discipline in every form of mysticism and liberation; the grounding of the spirit in nature; and the soul's responsibility to the self and others.
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The stages of animus to anima are not found only in mysticism and art but within any activity, however ordinary, that we do with skill, patience, and concentration. The monastic traditions of both East and West put an emphasis on doing common things well. Transcendence comes through ways of acting, the most ordinary ways. Men and women doing well daily, earthy things. Art is neither a superior nor an inferior way - it is one way of many, one form of "prayer" among many.
On this journey, neither the life of the mind nor the life of the hand is superior. It is however, for each individual to find the appropriate action that will best develop her interior skills. Each individual has different talents, external and interior. We cannot all be executives. Each part of life has its own perfection.
Such a goal requires both ambition and also resignation; accurate self-knowledge, in peace and serenity; and also attentiveness, alertness, quickness, watchfulness. The mystic's goal is twofold: to best develop one's talents and to act with compassion towards one's neighbors. Mind and ability cannot be separated from love of neighbor. There is always a responsibility to develop the opposite talent, for the scholar to become more aware of the power of ordinary earthy acts, for those involved in service, craft, and homemaking to stretch their intellectual vision. Animus, anima.
In my experience with art, I began to perceive analogies in the process of moving from the animus to the anima, from the conscious development of intellect and skills to the freeing of the unconscious imagination. A spiraling, cyclical process: learning and drawing well, and then letting the skill take on its own life. Learning the rules of painting and then letting imagination from the work.
The metaphors of animus and anima derive from two different Latin words for soul. The usual word is the feminine form, anima, in recognition, as it were, of the soul's essential nature. In relation to God the Soul is receptive, quietly waiting. In the primary decision of their lives the prayer of both Mary and Jesus was Fiat Mihi secundum verbum tuum: "Be it done to me according to thy word." Receptive. Anima. But the soul is also animus. Part of its nature is to take a spirited direction. Animus refers, then, to the soul's activities in tending toward ends: in its reasoning, its learning of disciplines, its struggle to master skills. The point of all the conscious activities of the animus is to enjoy their fruits. Animus is struggle; anima is enjoyment. Animus is reasoning, anima is seeing, attaining, enjoying the resultant insights. One exercises animus in order to enlarge the anima. Animus is, as it were, the means; anima, the end. In the ancient traditions, in any case, the anima is the deeper, more real dimension of the soul. (In the modern period, animus seems more highly prized: "The important thing, " we say, "is not to have answers, but to raise questions." This would have seemed odd to the ancients.)
Martin D'Arcy has a chapter in The Mind and Heart of Love on the animus and anima. He describes them first as the "active and passive, egoism and self sacrifice, classical and romantic, and masculine and feminine." But he later makes these distinctions more subtle. The animus is equated with that part of the mind that is rational, precise, and abstract. It represents the scientific and philosophical. It is the dominant part, lineal, aggressive. "The Prometheus, the strong and formative reason which has for its duty to rule the self and acquire knowledge." But 'at its lowest level it is the magician of the unconscious, the savage, the warrior, the titan and the tyrant." The animus has a higher and a lower level; an angel and a demon.
"Here," D'Arcy says, speaking of animus and anima together, 'in embryonic form is the partly scientific and partly imaginative apprehension of the secret of the processes of nature." The soul in its duality mirrors nature. He viewed the differences in two sides of the soul as a struggle of opposites. Over a lifetime, the two are constantly quarrelling and in tension. Sometimes they come together in their full power.
In the ideal order, animus and anima are friends. "In the rise and fall and positive and negative rhythm of their inter-play they keep the self from lapsing in one opposite or extreme." There is a danger in this imagery of opposites, especially in equating anima with female and animus with male. The metaphors take on a biological form in the penis and the vagina. The superficial effect is to drive persons of one sex toward one pole and into conflict with the supposed ideals of the opposite sex. The true situation is that each person is both animus and anima. To encourage the development of both the animus and anima. To encourage the development of both the animus and anima in each individual is to strike the proper balance of the soul in each. Males have anima; females have animus. The soul is beyond sexual categories, although in each person the human body (male or female) also effects the soul. We are embodied spirits. Still, the important point is that the soul of each of us requires two names. Each of us in both anima and animus.
It is obvious that the terms animus and anima derive from biological analogies. In addition, traditional cultural attitudes also have gathered around them: one type of role is "manly," another is "womanly." But these biological and cultural underpinnings do not exhaust the real point of the traditional language. In fact, they disguise and distort the real point. The real point is that in each of us the animus and anima are complementary. They are the two aspects of the soul. They are two rhythms of the self's activity. The animus: concern, driving, struggling to see. The anima: responsive, quiet, enjoying the attainment of its goals: like a craftsman contemplating a finished piece of work.
Animus and anima are also part of the stages of mystical and creative understanding. The animus is preparation. Through discipline, we develop our skills and faculties, both physical and mental. The animus is conscious, willful learning. It is assertive, and experimental; it often fails. It is often frustrated.
The anima seems more like a gift; it is an awaking of understanding. Sometimes it comes without effort. The unconscious takes over. We are receptive. Our natural efforts are quiet. We act with greater clarity. After the initial awakening, of course, the anima is often plunged into darkness and confusion. At each stage of the mystical way, the anima appears in new and more mature form, but always as a kind of enjoying.
The animus and the anima are not enemies. Each has its own enemies. Animus has its enemies and so has the anima. Each has its own peculiar vices, which each depends on the presence of the other to help it tame. The animus can become dry, legalistic, tyrannical, exploitative, wholly utilitarian. The anima can become narcissistic, afraid of risks, self-complacent, obsessed with changing feelings, despondent, slow to accept responsibility.
The anima has two impulses: one creative, the other destructive. The anima is unstable because, as D'Arcy says, alternately "it is above and below reason." Thus there is probably greater tension within the anima than within the animus. The anima is besieged from one side by the transcendent and from the other by the demonic. On another level, it is besieged from one side by the sensual and from another by the passional. The anima is torn by the imagination, which strains in two different directions, like a two-headed horse. And in its quarrels the dark passions of the anima seek to destroy both the natural rhythms of the anima and the harmony between the animus and anima. The classic weakness of the animus is its blindered, single-tracked striving. The classic weakness of the anima is the dispersion of energies.
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Through the initial awakening of the anima, we enter into a deeper sense of reality. It is disorienting, but also delicious. We are aware both of ecstasy and of melancholy. Decisions become more difficult. Values compete. Limits seem to have vanished. There are rooms within rooms. And within the rooms many doors. There are no windows, no clear view. We cannot anticipate which way to go. What was clear is now dark. We are standing in a different place. Familiar objects and people appear changed. The ordinary has become threatening. We become conscious of suffering and death in an unpleasant way.
In the beginning, the anima is untrained and cannot perceive its own skills, its own limits. Rather than moving to its limits and gently extending them (St. Teresa says the soul has infinite capacities), the anima overextends itself; often it retreats. Flying against rather than with the storm, it flails its wings, rips its feathers, is driven to earth. The anima hasn't developed a clear sense of its strengths and weaknesses. In its anxiety, it is filled with rage or withdraws in passivity. Thus, it invites psychic chaos.
The soul has infinite capacities - but it must also develop judgment. Flights of fantasy and imagination can be frightening or joyful. Destructive of creative. But they are flights without anchor until the animus begins to acquire mastery over the newly entered room. Mastery acquired, anima enjoys peace.
In the contemporary world, there are many who commend the anima while suppressing the animus. This is a mistake. I am thinking of group leaders in sensitivity sessions who speak as if the soul can make a simple assault on some instant creative insight. Often, they merely open up chaos. The soul is both anima and animus. The anima needs the guidance of the animus.
The soul, St. Teresa says, should model itself on the silk worm and nourish and prepare itself until it is mature. Slowly. Slowly.
The soul should not be forced from without but gently guided. It is a process that is both individual and communal - the individual looking to her own experience and the community correcting the tunnel vision.
It is no easy matter to gain confidence in the rhythm of the animus and anima. When do we venture to the next room? How do we develop our abilities, faculties best in the present room? How do we move the spirit, quickly or slowly, according to its own correct demands? Instinct and intuition are different matters. Not all instincts are creative. Parts of us are tangles of vipers. At what point do we do violence to the inner voice by pushing too much? Acting when we should be waiting in stillness? At what point do we do injustice to the spirit by taking it easy, being uncritical of the self, retreating, losing courage, or standing still when we should be waiting in stillness? St. John advises that when the faculties have developed skill there is a period of sweetness, satisfaction. But then the feeling clouds. The sweetness becomes acrid. In disappointment, we try old methods of prayer, of mediation, of action (and in the analog with art, old methods of painting) but these methods fail us. This is a sign that we should enter another room. We should change our interior place, our present horizon. We should not retreat to a former room where we were content.
Without the guidance of the animus, the anima stagnates, flounders, does not grow, deteriorates, destroys itself in madness. Without the activity of the anima, the animus becomes savage. Both animus and anima, in different ways, and in necessary complementarity, are civilizing agents.
Preparation, the chief work of the animus, is, then, the second stage of self-knowledge. By intelligent discipline and action, the mystics hope to increase the soul's capacity to perceive new dimensions of reality. St. Teresa insists that beginners should not do violence to themselves, physically or mentally. By their own will, they cannot force growth in themselves. Growth will come according to their own nature, if the faculties of the soul are prepared. In this sense, the animus must be guided by the anima, must not force itself, must not destroy in the name of saving. If anima must be guided by animus at one stage, at another animus needs the prevailing guidance of the anima.
Our own efforts are only the beginning.
As we draw, a charcoal line takes on a life of its own. It grows, changes from soft and delicate to hard and dark, finally trailing off into a light smudge. Momentarily the medium (the charcoal) shows the whole range of what it can do. Not only in the shape it defines, but also in its won earthy qualities. For a moment the soul reveals itself in the same way. Mystical theology describes the soul developing through nature all its capacities. Through meditation, habit and discipline - through animus - the anima extends its faculties. But then another stage takes over. Conscious activity has moved to a limit. The soul lets go. The individual ego is momentarily transcended. The unconscious emerges and takes over. Anima exceeds animus.
Let me use one more example. I think of the delight our ten-year-old son feels, after weeks of hitting sour notes on the trombone, when suddenly he make it sound well, plays the scale, breaks into a few bars of a song. He reaches a level of accomplishment, then with satisfaction sealed, he risks a new set of challenges. Each time he enters a "new room," he sees the inadequacy of what before had seemed well done, but he can't find his way in the new room. He keeps at it (assisted by parental nagging -animus often needs superego) until mastery over the petty and bothersome details comes. It's a fairly linear journey, his practicing. The sweat of animus. Then, when he has it, the pleasure of anima.
In art as in mysticism, the rhythm between the vision, the medium, and the art are so close they seem inseparable.
We need to resist polarities. We wish to achieve equality in jobs and pay, but in line with that goal, we need to develop more humane work schedules for both mean and women. A man's world for many men is not creative or liberating.
We need to resist old stereotypes; to allow both men and women to develop the animus and anima; to achieve a new balance within the soul and in cultural roles.
We also need to resist new stereotypes. Some women see their bodies as prisons. There is an undercurrent of hatred for the female body, for menstruation and for pregnancy. In this context, childbearing is seen as an affliction, and also as a limit to personal liberation. It is true that parenting places limits on both men and women. So do many other facets of our lives, emotional and circumstantial. What is a limit for some is a source of new insight and experience for others. Flannery O'Connor suffered from a debilitating inherited disease and died young. But she became one of our most creative and powerful writers. We need to discover what have been artificial limits (emotional, physical, intellectual) and what our real limits are. Between women and men there are physical differences. We will not achieve some kind of physical androgyny. Any androgyny of the soul that we achieve will not be a mix of the anima and animus, nor half of each, but rather a rhythm in which the two qualities remain distinct.
Liberation is constituted by having many choices and pursuing them accurately. More than any women in history we have many, almost too many, choices before us; pursuing them accurately is the problem. In recent decades we have encouraged an excess of anima in women. Hopefully the women's movement will not, in an excess of zeal, go in the opposite direction and deny the anima in preference for the animus. We need now to put our efforts behind a middle way that is not a compromise but which transcends both extremes.