Friday, February 20, 2009

A Review of Guilt with a Twist: The Promethean Way, by Lawrence H. Staples, Ph.D. (2008, Fisher King Press, www.fisherkingpress.com)

It’s always easy to like a book with which you instantly agree. We embrace the familiar, the similar, the types of things made of the same prima materia with which we’ve built our beliefs. But so much the better when an idea, a thesis, a text that we at first reject wins us over through a mix of solid research, real-life examples, and strong writing. Such is the case with my experience of Guilt with a Twist.

In the Overview, Dr. Staples states: “We have to sin and incur guilt, if we are to grow and reach our full potential” (xv). Being a “lapsed” Catholic who had often experienced guilt as a weapon and thought the concept of “Original Sin” or having to confess your sins to an intermediary was nothing but power-clenching propaganda on the part of the Church, I found myself inching toward dismissing the book entirely, a feeling that persisted as I continued through the first section.

The idea here is that there is “Good Guilt,” as demonstrated by such historical luminaries as Socrates, Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, and Galileo (and the mythical Prometheus). In other words, we do things that break the rules of the times or are considered “sins” to perpetrate a greater good, to achieve a higher purpose.

After reading about Parks, I made some notes in the margin, as follows:

“She did not sin, nor was she wracked with guilt. Society was wrong.”

“Sin is too subjective to standardize guilt and shame as he’s done so far.”

Oddly enough, on the day I started Guilt with a Twist I read an interview with artist/art dealer Tony Shafrazi who, to protest the Vietnam War, spray-painted “Kill Lies All” across Picasso’s Guernica mural (itself a protest piece). He had no guilt about it because his objectives were clear, just like Rosa’s must have been.

The moralizing of guilt is, of course, a thorny problem, as there is a world of possibility in making determinations about what is “good,” what is a “sin,” and just what might be a “greater good” or “higher purpose.” After all, the notion of Nietzsche’s √úbermensch, explored in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra and in the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, or the phrase “the end justifies the means” open a can of clawed and fanged wyrms ready to rip to shreds the fabric of society.

Lucky for us, Dr. Staples has taken the time to formulate his thesis and elaborate thoroughly upon it in Guilt with a Twist. He draws on many sources and techniques, first and foremost the work of Carl Jung. (Staples is a Jungian analyst who trained in Switzerland after making a mid-life career-switch at the age of 50).

He says: “the urge to sin may be identical with the urge to individuate, a Jungian term for the psychological process by which we become the unique person we are meant to be” (xix). This brought to mind the Nietzschean notion of slaying the dragon of “Thou Shalt.” As Jung said, “the shadow, where we hide our sins in secret, is 90% pure gold” (34), which that nasty dragon hordes.

Mapping out the terrain of guilt, Dr. Staples lists three types of authorities: parental, secular, and divine, all of which define “sin” in subtly different but mostly overlapping ways. The expectations put upon us by this triumvirate—from which we must stray in pursuit of our true selves—spark our guilt, leading us to suppress and deny our shadow selves and live what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation.”

In chapter 4, Dr. Staples outlines several sources of guilt: sex, abandonment, divorce, negative feelings for parents, anger, negativity, gender roles, selfishness, different sexual orientation, falling short of ideals, truth and lies, renunciation of religious beliefs, alcohol, and feelings.

Of the fourteen sections in chapter 4, I have had direct experience of twelve.

This certainly got my attention.

Anticipating the exploration of opposites in chapter 5, Staples writes: “the sacred and the profane are but two sides of a single underlying reality” (33). Then, in chapter 5 came the key sentence that furthered the connection with my own experiences: “[G]uilt’s purpose is not the maintenance of morals; it is the maintenance of the opposites and psychic wholeness” (98).

This is an idea I certainly understand, being a person who juggles many roles (writer, director, editor, father, husband, actor, musician, etc.) and has often felt abundant guilt that the “jack of all trades, master of none” phenomenon was coupling with not giving loved ones enough time and attention and spawning the child Mediocrity.

The pull of opposites is also something I know well, having struggled most of my life with the dynamic of pleasing others versus pleasing myself, and of course, the more I thought about it, the more the role of guilt became clear.

The often contradictory words of my grandmother, a quintessential Italian-American matriarch who recently passed away at 91, also echo in my head. She would say, alternately: “You work too hard! You need to take care of yourself and rest!” and “You’ve got to make hay while the sun shines!”

Chapter 5 discusses in vibrant detail the play of opposites, how they attract and move apart and how they produce, through the mechanism of guilt, homeostasis and creative output.

For those readers interested in the nexus between quantum physics and spirituality, Dr. Staples speaks about the movement of opposites in terms of the cosmic dance as I’ve seen it described by authors like Michael Talbot and Fritjof Capra.

As Dr. Staples says, “We keep moving from pole to pole until the ego becomes strong enough to bear the tension of co-existing opposites” (109). Recalling my own 20-plus- year journey on this path and the experiences of Carl Jung as related in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections, it is clear that the guilt must be borne if the ego is to achieve its required strength, and the process is never easy but ever required.

Chapter 6, entitled “The Role of Guilt in Creativity and Psychological Development,” at 76 pages, is the longest and most appealing chapter in the book to me, given the correlations between the material in chapter 5 and my own life. Dr. Staples extends the notion of dynamic opposites to the masculine/feminine coupling necessary in any creative endeavor. The case studies and historical examples from which Dr. Staples draws are a mini-course in the psychological aspects of creativity and this chapter could be read on its own by any artist seeking to better understand the process.

Approaching the end of chapter 6 and reading a section entitled “Sin, Guilt, and Self-Development,” I came upon a timely article on AOL about the Vatican’s concern that Catholics are going to confession less and less. There was a poll attached to the article in which 79% of the population still believes in the concept of sin. It’s a given that these online polls are far from scientific, but the number is high enough to suggest that a considerable portion of people believe that sin exists, therefore guilt must as well.

Part II of the book, which comprises a single chapter and the Conclusions, is called “Assuaging Guilt,” covering both spiritual and psychological approaches (what I have found in my own experience to be a highly useful and well-rounded dual approach to just about any endeavor). Chapter 7 ends with the analysis of five dreams with orientations around guilt. Dr. Staples offers some practical insights in working with dreams in creative and healing ways.

Life is complicated—in these troubled financial and political times more than ever—and it seems most people are struggling with the guilt of limited time, opportunity, and resources. The fields of the twenty-first century are seeded with myriad guilt, choking the good gardens of our progress as individuals and as a race. Guilt with a Twist is a kind of “gardener’s guide” to pulling the weeds of “bad guilt” and bringing forth a healthier harvest.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Review of The Blind Chatelaine’s Keys: Her Biography through Your Poetics, Begun by Eileen R. Tabios, Completed by Others, BlazeVOX, 2008

Chatelaine (chain)—A set of short chains on a belt worn by women and men for carrying keys, thimble and/or sewing kit, etc. (from Wikipedia)

“Kapwa”—a Filipino cultural concept of interconnectedness whereby other people are not “others” but part of what one is. (from the opening page; emphasis in original)

How does one get to truly know the artist? Especially when the one doing the searching is the artist her- or himself?

Dostoyevsky and Freud put forth the notion that it is impossible for an autobiography to reveal the Truth because of our penchant for self-delusion and both positive and negative exaggeration. Aldous Huxley seemed to agree, saying: “there is never a one-to-one correspondence between an author’s work and his character.”

If poetry, like all writing, is a form of autobiography, then the path to the Truth is lined with thorns and nails and broken glass, at the end of which are myriad locks.

The Blind Chatelaine’s Keys is a collection of reviews of many of Eileen Tabios’ books (going back to 1996), each book and each review constituting a “key” to the author’s—and reviewer’s—poetical and personal biography.

This unique deconstruction of the poet through the eyes of the critic features an impressive collection of important reviewers and poets, including Ric Carfagna, Clayton Couch, Laurel Johnson, Jesse Glass, Ron Silliman, Jean Vengua, and Annabelle Udo.

Reading this book got me thinking about the condition of being both a reviewer and writer—being on both sides of the line, as it were (as I have been as a director and actor, a teacher and student, an editor and submitter, etc.) and the responsibilities and expectations that come with each of these roles. Tabios has certainly hit on something important with the title of this collection—what better, surer way to learn of the artist than by knowing both the artist’s works and the way they are received/processed/interpreted by their audience (and let’s face it, a poet’s primary audience is other poets…Perhaps that is why the subtitle reads “Your Poetics”; my emphasis).

After the review section comes a moving and innovative piece entitled “Looking for M. A Haybun Journal.” On page 159 the reader will find a definition for “haybun,” a new form of writing created by Tabios based on a haiku/prose combination created by Basho and incorporating the hay(na)ku form created by Tabios and adopted by many others.

“Looking for M.” uses clinical definitions, poetry, and letters to a “Government Agency in Charge of Children” as it chronicles in moving words a “failed” adoption attempt on the part of Tabios and her husband after they experienced first hand the condition of “reactive attachment disorder,” prevalent in orphans, who, because of traumatic experiences throughout their young lives, cannot trust or bond with adults.

“Looking for M.” is as moving as it is innovative, and is well worth the purchase price of this volume in and of itself.

The final section of this collection is a “Post Script” called Roasting the Editor by a reviewer named John Bloomberg-Rissman that is a tongue in cheek deconstruction of Tabios’ Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole that begins by inserting Tabios’ name throughout a Wikipedia biography of Elvis Presley.

This last review succeeds in putting what we do as reviewers (and as reviewed) in proper perspective.

If it is true, as Oscar Wilde said, that the future of fiction is to “reveal the innermost workings of [wo]man’s soul” then the coupling of reviewer and reviewed is an essential mechanism for opening the locks.

I applaud both BlazeVOX and Eileen Tabios for putting together such an interesting and thought-provoking collection. It is well worth a read, whether ye be poet or no.

You can order the book at blazevox.org