BOOK REVIEW – EVOCATIONS OF ABSENCE

I enjoy books that consist of a collection of essays from multiple authors, as each chapter maintains a condensed quality that is difficult for a single author to maintain.

Book Review

On such an obtuse topic such as absence or the void, it was a great choice by the editor to engage a wide variety of views, from different disciplines, to “evoke” absence in their own unique and specialized ways. Absence, through its very nature, or lack thereof, must be one of the most difficult topics to elucidate verbally or through any other modality. The nine authors have however done a sterling job in creating a rich tapestry of views that stretch your understanding, stimulate reflective thinking and stir feeling. When each contributor is as specialized as these are, then you must be prepared to be extended, to the limit, and beyond your boundaries of comprehension. The authors have nevertheless succeeded in making their disciplines and viewpoints accessible and digestible. The book leaves you with a deep appreciation of the many rooms in the Void’s mansion!

The editor mentions in his introduction that the essays serendipitously ended up intersecting at several points, and that there is a background “hum” of a central theme. I agree with him that this murmur is a view of the Void as fullness, connectedness and a fountain of life, underneath, or above, the view of the Void as a negative space. I want to add though that the binding theme throughout the book is what Stephen Watson (chapter 1) refers to as a “metabolic, metaphoric and metamorphic” processing of experiences and manifestations from the Void. Watson uses those three terms in relation to poetry as a language beyond language, a meta-medium. Those terms also describe what each author has done with his/her own medium of expression. All the chapters, from poetry, music, art and movement, to analysis, mysticism and neurobiology, are different metaphors that help the reader to metabolise and “metamorphicise” experiences from the Void. The whole book is like an extended multi-modal active imagination, and at times a moving experience rather than just a theoretical exposition.

Stephen Watson’s chapter on “Poetry and Absence” is beautifully written. It speaks volumes when he says, “Without absence the poet would have nothing to evoke”. Although he writes about absence and nothingness, the chapter is opulent and full as he conjures up many fertile presences. As you read the chapter, it evokes absence, almost poignantly, yet the very function of poetry as “redemption through form”, as music and rhythm, comes through in the way the chapter is written. I also like his view that an encounter with the Void may, or may not, be transformative. Sometimes, out of our fear of the Void, we like to end with the statement that emptiness is full and transformative. This sooths us, and we make a mistake by conclusively defining the indefinable. We also, and always, need to add the inverse that fullness is empty, and as Watson says, that they cannot be told apart. Watson respects paradox and ambiguity as the only way to even attempt to talk about the Void.

Stephen Bloch’s chapter on “Music as Dreaming” introduces the fascinating notion of the “auditory symbol” or “acoustic image”, and that music, just like dreaming, can allow us to metabolize raw experience and digest psychic material. The links he makes between empathy in analysis and “echoing” or “sonic reflection”, which helps to contain experience, is intriguing. He adheres to the central theme of absence through elaborating on how, “Symbolism emerges in the awareness of and the growing capacity to tolerate absence”. Bloch, like Watson, moves towards paradox as the chapter progresses, which is always a sign of a more intimate understanding of the Void. The impermanence of music is skillfully captured in the sentence, “Thus, it (music) provides a containing presence even as it all the while itself evokes absence and moves towards silence”. This is certainly an absorbing chapter.

John Durley’s chapter on “Jung, some Mystics, and the Void”, draws comparisons between Jung and mystics like Mechthild, Meister Eckhart and Boehme. The chapter is compactly written, stimulating, and abounds with original Jungian quotes. Throughout the chapter one gets the impression, and I think correctly so, that Jung’s writings bordered on, and hinted at, but never extensively expounded, the Void. In the light of this, the chapter could’ve benefited from the way Jung detailed concepts like “unus mundus” and the “psychoid” level, and some of Jung’s references in his letters to the Self as an “empty centre”. Durley makes an excellent point though when he says that Jung’s appropriation of the mystics “…raises the real possibility that their experience of the Void could take a more central place in a Jungian understanding of the full inventory of the psyche than has been the case to date”. All in all, this is a comprehensive chapter that can be argued and debated in a few places, but is certainly a deep reflection and quite thought-provoking.

Helen Anderson’s chapter titled “A Concerto of the Heart” also fits very well within the central “hum” of the book, as she illustrates how music can be “metaphoric, metabolic and metamorphic” (Watson’s terms for poetry), when it comes to the experience of the Void. She focuses mainly on Rachmaninoff’s negative Void experience of depression, and sees his second Piano Concerto in C Minor, Opus 18, as a “cry from the heart” which draws him out of the negative Void and puts him back in touch with the sacred, which for him was “…a perennial source of strength”. The chapter can be quite technical in places for a reader with no knowledge of music science, but the author ultimately succeeds in making her central message clear and compelling, and definitely adds to the fertile diversity of the book.

In the chapter “Notes on the Edge of Infinity”, Anne Graaff takes you on a journey through, and out of, her own “…burnt-out place, a place where little of the old life remained, the metaphoric aftermath of a war zone”. Through play, art and photography on the edge of the ocean, and richly illustrated with personal notes and photographs, she lets you linger with her on the delicate rim between chaos and order, shadow and substance, formlessness and form. For her, the ultimate pathway led away from the negative Void, but her daily almost meditative encounters “on the edge” also hinted at a celebration of the transient Void, the impermanent and the ephemeral. This book is enriched by this direct and very human experience on the brink of the Void.

When I saw the title of Peter Hodson’s chapter, “The Void, A Neurobiological Perspective”, I almost did a double take, and immediately wondered how he is going to bring the Void into neurobiological structures. I was pleasantly surprised as he explained the neurological structures that mediate the opposite of the void experience such as affect, a sense of self and meaning. He expands on “Internal Working Models”, complexes and archetypes from a neurobiological point of view, and then sees void states as a failure of these structures. What makes this chapter so complete, is that Hodson tackles both pathological and non-pathological void states. Jung’s ideas are nimbly integrated throughout the chapter, and one of his conclusions that void states, if they can be endured, “...provide the possibility of an expansion of neural connectivity and therefore of consciousness as well”, is indeed intriguing. I also like the way he ends the chapter with a description of the void state as an experience between construction and reconstruction, “…as the tomb of the established world and the womb of the potential world”. Hodson has succeeded in consolidating and merging a wide variety of viewpoints in one chapter, and my double take became a fulfilling double read!

This book wouldn’t have been complete without Tina Stromsted’s chapter on “Embodied Imagination”. Jung’s notion that individuation can only take place if you first return to the body, to your earth, is what Stromsted offers in this chapter through the technique of “Authentic Movement”. The chapter is practically written and amply illustrated with case examples of how lingering in the Void long enough can lead to creativity, healing and deeper experiences of the Self. She contends that something always comes from no-thing if we are prepared to hold the tension, and to wait without knowing. This chapter is poetry in motion, symbolism made flesh, and once again affirms the central theme throughout the book of how experiences from the Void can be imagined, digested and transformed.

In the chapter entitled “Alone, Within or Without”, Paul Ashton explains why individuation is such a painful process, and that it takes “…more courage, determination and acceptance than most are capable of”. He uses some of the Late Poems of D. H. Lawrence to illustrate this process, and flings you immediately into the abyss with Lawrence’s poem “Only Man” (“Only man can fall from God…into the abyss of self-knowledge”). From here he makes the point of how, “Consciousness brings with it a separation from God…”, or similarly put, “the awareness of the ego-apart-from-Self”. Through the appropriate use of very dramatic, sometimes stunning, Lawrence poems, new terms for the Void are introduced, such as “the fall”, “bottomless abyss” and “oblivion”. This adds to the verbal lavishness and experiential multiplicity of the subject of the book, “Evocations of Absence”. As some chapters only focus on one view of the Void (e.g. the meaningless or separated), it becomes the Editor, as he does, to exemplify the other view as well (the meaningful or connected). Whether the experience of the Void is negative or positive, Ashton’s compelling message, through Lawrence’s poems, is that you will never change unless you allow yourself to become empty of your known self. He illustrates this notion with analytical experience and a dynamic work-up of Lawrence’s poems.

I find the last chapter, “Theism versus the Void: Pascal’s Wager Reconsidered” by Peter Collins a touch disappointing. It is well-written and argued, but one-sided, epitomized by the word “versus” in the title. I expected that the last chapter of a book of this nature, ending with a more philosophical approach to an essentially indescribable topic like Absence, would at least contain dialectical arguments, ambiguities and paradoxes. Instead, the author makes nothingness into an “absurd” and “pessimistic” “godlessness”, versus the opposite, a “plenitude of goodness” saturated with love and divinity. He also hauls Buddhism in with the “radically pessimistic views” of nihilistic atheism, which is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the essence of Buddhism. Buddhism is the “middle way” between the opposites of nihilism and permanent eternalism. In Buddhist epistemology, emptiness is the wisdom of impermanence and interdependence - that things are ultimately “empty” of a separate identity, although it exists conventionally. The author ultimately favours Pascal’s argument, and fills the void with love, goodness and meaningful suffering. This is of course one view, and indeed a defensible one, as the author does very well. Maybe it is useful to end the book with such a strong and definitive view, as it compels counter-argument. The topic of the book necessitates multiple views, not an either/or or versus approach, but a both/and or inclusive one.

The indescribable cannot be described. Absence can only be evoked, not captured. This book evokes it multi-modally, and through the rich multiplicity of the chapters makes one see that the Void is present and absent, full and empty, echoing and silent, divine and godless, connected and separated, patterned and chaotic, a womb and a tomb, movement and stillness, contained and bottomless, theistic and atheistic, everything and nothing, and ultimately, none of any.

I highly recommend this captivating and stimulating collection of essays. Let me dare to say that it “fills a gap” in the literature of Analytical Psychology, but it definitely leaves one with a “metabolic, metaphoric and metamorphic” absorption of Absence.

Deon van Zyl, January 2009