Regaining the Soul

Regaining the Soul

After spending enough time with graduate students and ‘professional’ philosophers, one is bound to come across the sad story. The sad story is usually told while intoxicated and with a sense of embarrassing nostalgia, as if admitting to having once been devastated upon learning that there was no Santa Claus. The story admits to multiple iterations, but usually takes something like the following form:

I was drawn to philosophy by reading Plato (Heidegger, Sartre, etc.) and was enthralled by his ideas. I wanted nothing more than to leave behind the cave of our conventional world on a quest to find the Truth. That’s what I thought philosophy was about. You know… finding the truth, finding the meaning of life. I was so stupid back then. I had no clue that those airy visions had nothing to do with REAL philosophy. It’s obvious to me now that philosophy doesn’t concern itself with wooly notions like Goodness, Truth, or Beauty. I’ll never know what Truth is; no one can, but it doesn’t matter. I can at least churn out a few articles defending a Kripkean analysis of the semantics of the word “true” and pad my CV a little.  

The sad story constitutes the unacknowledged backdrop of professional philosophical culture. Within such a culture no one would be caught dead entertaining the Platonic claim that philosophy should concern itself with the cultivation of the soul. Indeed, the only time it is appropriate to mention soul in this professional world is when talking about “the soul crushing” nature of graduate school, the job market, or academic life in general.  Against this barren backdrop, Michael Grosso, a rogue philosopher, presents a refreshing alternative in his book Soulmaking: Uncommon Paths to Self-Understanding.

Early in the book he recounts a dream eerily familiar to many of us: Finding himself without his head at a philosophy conference. He walks around the conference futily asking senior philosophers where the lost and found is in the hope that someone has dropped it off there. He never finds it, but manages to miss all the conference proceedings. Though missing his head, he feels no pain, only “a sense of uneasiness, bordering on nausea.”[1] Grosso takes his dream to signify the forfeiture of his soul to academia:

For a long time I pondered my dream. A psychoanalyst might suspect I was suffering from castration anxiety: in the unconscious, ‘head’ and ‘penis’ might be equivalent in meaning. I prefer to say my ‘head’ was a symbol of my soul. Either way, the dream didn’t bode well for philosophy. For, from the viewpoint of my unconscious, philosophy had been put in the role of castrator. According to my unconscious, my education was castrating my soul, the vital core of my being.[2]

Living in our culture somehow led to soul loss. In addition to being “educated to soullessness” by academic institutions, it seems as if childhood trauma, our fear of opening to the intensity of life, and our awareness of death all conspire to drive our souls into exile.[3]

It is thus vital that we discover a way to retrieve our lost souls. Since we have little guidance on this process in our contemporary world, Grosso suggests that we must find a way to do it on our own. He dubs this process “soulmaking”, borrowing a term originally coined by Keats. Keats opined that though “there may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions”, these “are not souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself.”[4] A man may have have a spark of divinity simply in virtue of being born, but he has no soul until he has fashioned himself into an individual, in a process that Jung would later call individuation.[5]

Grosso likens soulmaking to the artistic process of collage. In collage an artist takes disparate elements from various contexts and recombines them into a new whole.[6] “Collage is a revolutionary idea. All the artificial compartments and classifications, the logical backbone of soulless reality, break down” as we impose a new narrative order upon it.[7] Hence, in collage “everything we experience may be used to make soul; everything serves some purpose in forging our personal identity.”[8] Grosso points to two elements in particular as uniquely apt materials for soulmaking: images and dreams. Images, he claims, have an essentially incarnational character, like Hegel’s concrete universals. They constitute “a third world, a third metaphysical zone” capable of reconciling “opposing tendencies” and “gathering all the powers of the universe to itself.”[9] By focusing on the image, the soul can overcome its state of death and fragmentation by energizing “the coincidence of opposites.”[10] Dreams prove to be a second crucial material for soulmaking, since they are the products of a creative impulse free from external and internal constraints. “Dreaming is the purest manifestation of soul, spontaneous and uninhibited by sensory input…. I describe dreams that… rise from the depths of the soul, less from ‘my’ soul than from the unbounded Heraclitean soul. These dreams I can best describe as pregnant with meaning… Good soulmakers are alert to the dreamer within, the one we sometimes call our muse or genius.”[11] Soulmakers will take these two elements of image and dream and bind them together through narrative to illumine the depths of the self.

In the rest of the book, Grosso undertakes the process of soulmaking by focusing on the anomalous experiences of his life. He speaks of great dreams, holy visions, bad trips, botched interactions with saints, miraculous bloomings, pre-cognitive dreams, astral projection, and hauntings. I suspect that many graduate students and academicians have had similar experiences but keep quiet for fear of ridicule. The stories he recounts are interesting and, if true, illustrate that we have much to learn about the nature of consciousness and reality. I won’t attempt to recount them all here, but instead focus on two that might resonate with typical graduate students.

In the first, Grosso recounts how he saw a UFO shortly before his dissertation defense. He was painting in his loft in an attempt to “integrate himself” after analytic philosophy had dissected his soul.[12] He and a friend were listening to Coltrane’s The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, a religiously themed jazz piece, when he looked out the window and saw “a cluster of dazzling white lights” appear “out of nowhere.”[13] They were “larger and more brilliant than any star” and performed “zigzag aerial acrobatics… in tune with Coltrane’s music.”[14] He then called to his friend, and she also observed the strange dancing lights which then descended over the oldest church in the town, hovering above the cross. Grosso then felt as if he were pulled out of his body toward the object in the sky. Upon returning to his body, he saw “more inwardly than outwardly”[15], “two large heads and massive shoulders” above the lights.[16] He had the sense that the beings were voyeuristically observing him and his friend.  Finally, the lights once more began their impossible maneuvers, flew off, and disappeared. He and his friend then went downstairs and were greeted by their amazed neighbor who had also seen the dancing lights.[17]

Upon reflection, Grosso feels like the lights reflected something important about the nature of consciousness.

“No human organism could survive such accelerations or direction changes. That much seemed certain. There was something about the whole thing I couldn’t—and still can’t—quite put my finger on. It is as if I almost know what it was—as though it already has, or wants to, give its secret away. The truly puzzling thing is the way the pattern of lights seemed related to its guiding intelligence. It looked to me as if this entity—whatever its ultimate nature—moved in a way that was more organic than mechanical. What we saw appeared to fly with the swiftness of thought itself. It was as if thought itself, in some mysterious fashion, was causing the light movements. It was as if we had actually watched a thought.

But if it was thought like, who or what was the thinker? All I can say with confidence is that I believe what we saw was either some visual projection caused by an intelligent being not physically present or something even stranger, a mental organism of unknown type.”[18]

The experience left him thinking about Plato’s true earth, a realm of being of much more intensity than our ordinary physical world.[19] Ultimately, he thought that the lights might have been the cosmos poking fun at his upcoming dissertation defense. “ ‘Ha, Ha, doctor, explain this!’ it seemed to say. ‘Wise? Or ignorant of great mysteries?’ Had Socrates stingray stung me? Was I being reminded that wisdom had something to do with becoming conscious of what I didn’t know?”[20]

The second story concerns the universe’s response to Grosso’s growing nihilism. Grosso recounts how he was feeling particularly depressed one Christmas. His girlfriend at the time convinced him to go to a Christmas Eve service at a church, but it did nothing to lift his mood. In fact, it provoked a further descent into despair, since the message was banal and the people were crass. The evening reached its nadir upon returning home, when Grosso and his girlfriend had a fight. He describes his mood as follows:

“The spirit of Christmas was dead inside me. Each year I watched a little more of the old magic fade. This night seemed the end. The afterglow of all my childhood Christmases seemed spent. Not a quiver, not a breath of Yuletide spirit. I looked out the window at stars twinkling in the bowels of godless space and dropped into dreamless sleep.”[21]

But, in the morning, he awakens to a little Christmas miracle: his girlfriend announces that a plant he had rescued and tended for many years has suddenly flowered overnight.[22]

“I got up and walked to the window. Several white buds had appeared at the top of the highest green waxy leaves. My first reaction was to feel pleased. Then I felt puzzled. I walked around the plant, staring at it in disbelief. The air was fragrant. I bent over and sniffed the white buds…. I turned toward the plant. ‘I just don’t get it’. The small white buds seemed so out of place—out of time…. The sweet smell was intense. The more I thought, the more my feelings were mixed. I don’t know whether to feel grateful or paranoid.[23]

Grosso continued to be haunted by the experience in the following months. The experience struck him as “unnatural.” “It made me anxious, as if I were losing my grip, getting caught in something beyond my control.”[24] He eventually decided to investigate whether it was possible for his plant to have flowered naturally at night in the dead of winter. Upon investigation, he discovered that it was a “dracaena fragrans, a tropical shrub that flowered infrequently; it normally requires a tropical climate.”[25] He spoke with florists to gain more information. One told him that that he had never seen such a plant flower. “Flowering in bitter cold was beyond what they knew of the plant’s habits. And flowering at night was extraordinary, since light is needed to stimulate budding.”[26] Another florist confirmed its miraculous nature and added his own story about a preternatural flowering.[27] The lesson Grosso draws from this event concerns the healing power of sacred time. “Perhaps there is something we have forgotten about sacred time—about holy days and healing times. Maybe the plant’s bizarre behavior was caused by something above our individual, tribal, or species mind. By the mind, as some might say, of God. Maybe… it really was a Christmas card from heaven.”[28]

As one might suspect, recounting these kinds of experiences alienated Grosso from the rest of the professorate, some telling his students that “their lives would be ruined” if they took his courses and others worrying that discussing such matters “might endanger a student’s mental health.”[29] But his openness to the paranormal also proved to strengthen his connection to his students, since “many of them had puzzling experiences they needed to discuss with somebody.”[30] It is in view of both the dangers and delights of wrestling with such phenomena, that Grosso concludes with an invitation for us to undertake the process of soulmaking for ourselves. He presents seven injunctions to guide us on our way:

  1. Value your own experience.
  2. Pay attention to anomalies. “They inspire wonder and keep the soul young.”[31]
  3. Pay attention to the feminine.
  4. Dialogue with your shadow.
  5. Let your opposites dance.
  6. Pay attention to dreaming.
  7. Make images.

This strikes me as valuable guidance for those of us seeking to put our souls back together after living through the horrors of academia.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] Grosso, Soulmaking: Uncommon Paths to Self-Understanding, (Charlottesville: Hampton Roads Publishing, 1997), 35.

[2] Ibid., 32.

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Loc cit, 19.

[5] Ibid.,19.

[6] Jeff Stout calls this process bricolage. See Ethics After Babel.

[7] Grosso, Soulmaking, 28.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Ibid., 22.

[10] Ibid., 23.

[11] Ibid., 23.

[12] Ibid., 63.

[13] Ibid., 64.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 65.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 66-67.

[19] Ibid., 68.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 112.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 112-113.

[24] Ibid., 113.

[25] Ibid., 115.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 116.

[29] Ibid., 181.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 200.

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