Part one – The dream and the virus , a personal initiation into nature and psyche, a ritual no one knows how to conduct, a viral loosening of social structures, the shaking up of psychological material, the crisis within the liminal, the symbolic content of the liminal , towards an ecological and psychological function for sickness.
1. Introduction – the dream and the virus
At the start of a podcast about dreams, JF Martel reads out the dream of his friend, Phil Ford:
“I am looking through a door way at a dining room in an ordinary house. It doesn’t look like my house, just a generic suburban sort of place, though maybe a bit nicer than average. There is a big wooden table at the centre. Hovering above the table is a….what to call it? An entity of some kind. An intelligence, although not necessarily alive in the usual sense. It looks like an electron microscope photo of a virus, a ball with spikes or tendrils sticking out of it. I was scared of this thing, it didn’t communicate with me, but I had a sense of terrible danger, that this thing was going to do something. And then it did something almost indescribable. I mean, I saw it in the dream, but I can’t tell you exactly what I saw.
The spikes softened, and grew longer, loosing their sharp geometrical appearance and snaking down off the table. There was something horrible in this motion. The virus divests, and as it did the rainbow prism tentacles seemed to spread into the very matter in the room, their very colours swirled and took on the colour of everything they touch – no they became everything they touched. it was like “invasion of the bodysnatcher’s” but it wasn’t just people that were replicated, it was all of reality. I ran, but I realised the futility of running, for I could never escape this thing.
I had already turned into it, or it had already turned into me. It’s not enough to say it transformed the world, it became the world. It replaced it. Until a moment ago, it was just the world as we experienced it, a word of various things – tables wall, carpets etc. And then the virus had infected it, and all the tables, walls and carpets became what the virus was; intelligent. The world became mind, and the mind was the virus.”
Phil Ford, letter to JF Martel, read as part of the Weird Studies podcast, 18th March.
The dream, as dreams do, shows little respect for the conventional boundaries of understanding. Yet the dream reveals an image of the virus we can readily understand. The dream virus has an intention to transform the world into itself. Eeriely, he tells us it was dreamt in October 2019, before any thought of the virus.
Martel suggests that with the virus comes the shadow that it casts. That shadow, he explains, is an image, the image of the virus we carry in our psyche. This image-shadow has penetrated our psyche’s as surely as the virus has entered our bodies. Like sediment loosened by a storm that shakes the riverbed, all the sediment of our culture has been disturbed. The virus and it’s image disturbs loose psychological material, made us sick with worry and hope. As the immune system reacts to threat, so does the psyche.
We reach for ideas, patterns and responses that seem familiar, be they optimism about opportunities for nature to return, fear of things falling apart, or profound disappointment of the state of the world that has led to this.
What loosens in me is a feeling for the raw wound between psyche and nature, and that old tantalising desire to draw them close again.
2 A personal initiation into Psyche and Nature
My first initiation into nature, after a childhood growing up in suburban London, happened over 20 years ago now in my late teens. It was a pulse of life found at sunrise in the Sussex countryside during the tail end of the free party movement that swept the UK during the 90’s, where the music seemed part of the cellular struture of the plants, a gestalt of rhythm, sound, Sunrise, trance.
Nature was the guide during my transition from young adulthood too. Following the completion of a philosophy undergraduate degree, aged 21, I found it hard to envisage what meaningful work would be or a meaningful life might be. A 6 month depressive withdrawal, distilled in me a feeling that meaning was to be found in nature.
The first meaningful work I found was at a community farm, gardening, rewilding and working with adults with mental health problems. I studied permaculture design with the late Patrick Whitefield, learned about ecological interactions, how to listen to and read the landscape, and how to apply this to human life. In the undercurrent of these experiences, I began to move through the shadowlands of depression, and towards something more vital.
I wanted to find a deeper connection between nature and human nature, or the psyche. To this end began a practice of writing poetry, performing music and learning dramatic improvisation, whilst working with adults affected by acute mental health problems. I felt that just as plants grow wild in nature, so do images grow unbidden in the imagination. In 2007, in an attempt to consolidate art, healing and nature, I began to train as a dramatherapist. I trained in mythic imagination, symbolic action, ritual theatre, contained within a psychotherapeutic practice.
Around this time, I wrote a long narrative poem called “Entwined Mind: Hero the Clown in the Ghost Garden.” The core of that poetic sequence, was a clown, misnamed Hero, and his journey from the land of beautiful concepts (the skeletal ghost garden) to a real and far more beautiful and sensual earthly garden, through his encounters with lovers, shadowy enemies, archetypal images, and the experience of the author dreaming him.
The three entwined threads of the entwined mind I envisioned were Hero the clown, the author, and the imaginal itself. These three threads – image, self and the psyche continue to weave around me.
Since then, 13 years of practice with children, adolescents and parents affected by addiction as a dramatherapist has given me respect for the way that images, ritual theatre and symbolic action arise from a psychopathology to offer new vision for the Self. My research into the creative process drew on archetypal psychology to make sense of the creative process. At the same time my work as a poet, musician and storymaker has allowed me to experience the way images emerge from allowing the wounded psyche to immerse itself in an artform.
It’s led me to feel the dominant worldview of our culture enjoys the use of powerful technologies, but a dissociative vision how we belong to the world. We are frequently unconcious of what we do to ourselves, to each other or to the world. We have neither objective truth, nor certainty of the nature of our inner world. Yet, we often act as if we had both. In truth we are always somewhat in the dark, both as to our own nature and the nature of reality. Sometimes, though the dark is what we need to sharpen our perceptions and hear the world a little keener.
3 The Coronavirus and the lysis of lockdown .
This virus has loosened the structures of our world. Our social structures are revealed to be social constructions, able to swiftly change when the world does, to closer match our values.
The living world has the power to produce microscopic pieces of matter with the ingenious ability to enter into us, replicate themselves and bring with them sickness and death. It is a paradox that it is precisely the generative power of viruses that brings with them sickness and death – they are packed with a life force which enables them to replicate and mutate at a rate beyond our comprehension, until they burst forth from cells they have infected, rupturing them and igniting intense immune responses. Their creativity and fertility brings death.
This death-life principle draws us closer to the indestructible life force within nature. The ancient Greeks called this the zoe and was personified by Dionysos personified . This indestructible life force was likened to the sap running through a young tree, the fire hidden in the grape, or the blood pulsing in a rabbit’s skull (ER Dodds introduction to the Bacchae by Euripides).
The study of biology and ecology also brings us close to this same paradox, as it seems that even sickness and death have a biological function – sickness to protect the organism, death to release the energy held within the boundary or skin of a life form. This rupture allows the regulation and continuation of the greater living system.
The virus causes a process called lyis in the cell walls it invades. Dionysos was called “Lysios” – the loosener – he brought liberation through the loosening of psychological structure and conditioning. Dionysos was revered through rites and rituals that took place in his honour, in varying forms and meanings for thousands of years. If something unites these practices, it is the sense that worshipers of Dionysos sought to become closer to the zoe through altered consciousness brought on by ecstatic dance and ritual. The zoe bound together the creative and destructive and so linked death to life, The force that bound the prey to it’s killer, through ritual, enabled entry into a trance state. Bacchants were brought closer the animating touch of the world.
The anthropologist Victor Turner made an influential study of ritual. He observed how ritual has its origins in crisis, either personal or collective. This crisis leads to a separation from everyday life. The participant steps into an in between space he called the liminal. In the liminal space of ritual, there is an opportunity to face the crisis. In ritual, nothing is predetermined. Within liminality social structures are dissolved and participants and guides are instead connected by what Turner calls “communitas” – the fragile but enduring presence within any relationship.
4 Lockdown and Liminality
Lockdown takes us into an odd kind of liminality. It is hard for us to interpret corona virus as arising as from the ecological processes of the living Earth, the Dionysian zoe. Any move to interpret the virus as a message from nature seems to take us into a naive anthropormorphism, and the spectre of religion, of a nature as a god with a simple message of revenge or rebalance. Yet nature, is composed of messages – wildfires are a message, as are floods, the loss of birdsong. They are messages as to the health of an ecosystem. Remember that nature as a complex web of interactions, is not primarily concerned with the well being of human. Remember as well with Hillman, that the word “angel” means messenger, and that some angels are terrifying to see.
It is as if, in the face of this angel of sickness, we have been suddenly summoned into the liminal, interior space of a ritual, but with no elders or processes to guide us, or containers to hold us. As if we are in a ritual space but without ritual sight. In response to liminality, we see communitas flourish with neighbours suddenly needing each other, setting up support groups for shopping and social needs. The housing and health burdens of the deprived become a problem for all. It is clear now that a garden or patch of earth is essential for mental health and that housing people well is a matter of civic urgency. It is clear that a national health service protects all members of society, and that this benefits the rich as much as the poor. It is clear that our social systems fail to meet our social needs.
It is clearer now that shelf stockers are as important as stock brokers. It is clear that when you industrialise rural villages, globalise food production and push their inhabitants out further into more wild ecosytems, there are consequences. A lysis in the structure.
This lysis takes place against a backdrop of death, isolation and a sharp focus on the social dangers of deprivation. A strange mixture of vitality and melancholy prevails, of a feeling of potential and of worry. If the crisis will throw up all of the psychological material of our culture, we will need communitas to get through. Yet without respect for a way of seeing that connects psyche to nature, the virus only makes sense as a threat to be eradicted.
5 Art as communitas
One of my favourite stories as a child was a short story, a modern fairy tale, called “La Corona and the Tin Frog” by Russell Hoban. When the coronavirus began taking over the human world I thought about it again. Really it’s just a co-incidence that it had the world “Corona” in it. Corona means “crown” – the virus has crown like spikes, and La Corona in this story is the crown brand written on a cigar box lid. La Corana is a Princess, whom a Tin Frog stares longingly at.
The book shows a room filled with abandoned Victorian toys and objects. In each story a character reaches a place of inner conflict. They cannot carry on as they have been doing but need to make a change. And in each story, something happens at the stroke of midnight, not to fix that problem, but to make more loose the world around them. It is this loosening that brings with it an opportunity to make the action that signifies change.
The stroke of midnight is the image of a threshold between worlds. Our own current threshold lies between the world of our comforts, and the world beyond the end of the road.
Turner spoke of the beats and the hippies as a communitas response to the crisis of world war. Daniel reviewing Turner, writes:
“During periods where communitas predominates, individuals liberate themselves from the difficulties of living within social structures, thus experiencing power and joy with a magical quality, giving rise to symbolic thought, art, and religion. In other words, the generalized social bond existing between individuals during periods of communitas provides vitality to a culture and restores the sense of unity that makes possible social life”
Symbolic thought arises from the liminal, in response to crisis. Perhaps the symbolic may not be an alternative to conceptual thought, but more like it’s parent, or root. We find liminality embedded not only in our dreams, but in the art, stories and films we love.
Literature and stories offer thresholds into the dreaming of the earth too, they are a modern version of dreaming whilst awake (Buhner S Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm).
6 Beyond the threshold: What crisis within the liminal
Let’s follow Turner into the liminal. A crisis leads to separation from conventional structures of human life and takes us beyond the threshold of the ordinary. Within this liminal space, the events that caused the crisis are re-experienced again and again. This material provokes a quest for a way forward, and gives rise to symbolic thought. Let us consider what kinds of material we know is present in the liminal space of our global culture.
Business as usual has provided us with every imaginable comfort. It has allowed (some of) us to have any imaginable comfort delivered to our doorstep, markets filled with produce, clothes, technology, the dream of health and long life.
But it has come at a cost. It has brought polluted rivers, seabirds choked on plastic, dried up soil that catches fire, rains that don’t fall or deluge. It has brought deserts into places where once trees pumped water into the sky. Now, arising from the ecological matrix that we have exploited comes an infectious virus. Suddenly, it is not the rainforests or the oceans that we fear may die, but ourselves and those around us.
The fear of death, of ourselves or those we love has suspended business as usual. Behind closed doors we have to connect to each other in new ways, whilst simultaneously going inwards into the life situation we find ourselves. This is a period of enforced reflection for the species.
If things have got to this point it is not that, like the ancient Hebrews in the Old Testament, we have sinned and failed to honour the true god. Whilst it is tempting and even fitting to seek atonement with nature, our problem is more insidious. We have systematically built a glass coffin around us, that cuts us off from perceiving the reality of the life we are a part of. We operate on the world through this pane of glass. But no isolating unit can prevent the world finding a way in. No quarantine can prevent the world touching us, entering us, bringing as it may deep joy or fear and sickness.
7 The Origins of the Virus
In Ford’s dream dream-virus stretches into the matter of the room, it’s tables and chairs, and the human psyche, causing dread. If they come from nature, what does this mean? Why do viruses exist in the first place? In fact, why do we get sick at all? These questions go to the roots of belonging in the world. Sickness and the anguish it brings, connect us to all our ancestors , all attempts to heal sickness, successful or not. It is as if there is a core lament, an ancient cry at the heart of being human that asks this question “why do we get sick at all?”.
Biologists who examine viruses find them made of strands of genetic code, or RNA, surrounded by a protein skin. A virus gains entry to the host body it seeks to infect. It uses it’s chemical signalling to get taxi’d to the destination it wants to go to by carrier cells. There it sheds it’s protein skin, stretches out it’s chemical skeleton keys, loosens and enters the cell wall, using the host cell’s genetic code to replicate itself again and again until it burst open the cell wall to repeat the process. This bursting open of the cell wall prompts the immune response, which in turn generates the feeling of sickness – fever and shivers to burn off the virus, nausea to purge, and the body is drenched in autoimmune hormones as it attacks the invasive matter.
The ecological role of viruses
Viruses occupy a strange and subterranean underworld. They act lifelessly outside of the body, but like organisms within it. Although we try to kill them with alcohol gel, we they define them as not alive to begin with. Our most common sense of them is that they are a tiny enemy, chaotic, lifeless bringer of illness.
We often see chaos were there is complex dynamic order. If we go into a mature woodland, we see thickets of brambles, or trees growing in a disorderly fashion. Closer study reveals that every part of an ecosystem connects to each other part, from root to sky. Beauty emerges from apparent chaos. Given this propensity within nature, for disorder to mask a greater beauty, what is the ecological role of viruses?
Biologists examining viruses have concluded that they are evolutionarily ancient. They significantly pre-date animals, plants and fungi. They know that viruses have been preying on bacteria and cells for billions of years. And that this relationship serves a purpose that alternates between predation and a mutually beneficial symbiosis, and that is deepy implicated in evolution. Predators, regulate the health of the populations that they predate. Wolves allow forests to grow by regulating the health and size of deer populations. By predating the sickliest, and preventing deers from overgrazing, young trees are not all grazed to death before they can grow large enough to withstand being eating.
Similarly, ocean bourne viruses have a complex relationship with the viruses they predate. They may stay inert within them, causing no harm. At other times they display aggressive death wielding power towards their hosts penetrating cell walls and replicating till the cell walls burst. When dormant within a host, the virus enters the genetic material of the bacteria.
If the bacteria tries to divest itself of the virus at the point of reproduction, the virus releases a poison, killing the daughter bacteria. So only bacteria with the virus survive. In this way, the levels of bacteria within the oceans stay regulated. The virus, the predator of bacteria, regulates the larger dynamics of the ecosystem (Frank Ryan Virusphere), keeping population dynamics in check.
Stranger, viruses, cross species strands of gentic code who copy and replicate their hosts dna, have been implicated in the process of evolution. The living soil is full of viruses, and symbiosis between virus-bacteria-fungi-plant can lend strong genetic advantage. For example, the ability of the human placenta to mesh seamlessly enough to allow the foetus not to be detected and destroyed by the mother’s immune system has viral origins. Viruses seem deeply implicated in not only evolution but the maintainence of ecology. (Frank Ryan: Virolution)
Lynne Margulis elegantly reminds us that if we care to go deep enough, our true ancestors are not so much paleolithic humans, or early hominids, but ultimately bacteria. Our world was and is deeply and utterly bacterial. If we are to speak of a biosphere, it is a bacterial one. If we are to speak of symbiosis, or being part of greater whole, or to have a spiritual self or a soulful perspective this must include bacteria.
Bacteria, semi-immortal, promiscous, shape shifting constituants and creators of the biosphere, from the deep arctic seas to the who through their continually gene shuffling promiscuity, their hunger, curiosity and mutalism began a process of symbiogenesis. Bacteria, experimenting with new structures, forming and dividing branch like into structural patterns later found in roots, branches, veins, lungs. Bacteria fermenting food, in our guts, allowing digestion, bringing the gifts of beer, wine, vinegar, yoghurt, bread, preserved food. Bacteria, the originators of movement, spiralling spirochettes wriggling into each other the first organelles. The bacterial created nucleus, bacteria captured in plants to allow photosynthesis – it is bacteria not plants that feed off the sun’s light, a power that plants only benefit from through their mutual symbiosis, encasing and protecting bacteria within chloroplasts.
Bacteria, who swill inside the bellys of cattle, allowing them to digest grass. Bacteria, who through their metabolic process transformed the atmosphere of an entire planet from carbon dioxide to it’s present oxygen rich composition, and so paved the way for respiration that the coronavirus attacks. Bacteria allow us to digest our food, to breath. Their nemasis are viral, and the virus-bacteria mutual interactions provide a dynamic by which homeostasis is achieved – the long wobbling self- correcting process by which life emerges out of itself, feeds on itself, brings crises upon itself which it solves to create further crises and further solutions.
In a viral-bacterial symbiogenetic world, evolution seems powered by invasion and immune response. Like Jonah inside the whale attempts to invade are met by attempts to swallow and digest. When neither of these attempts suceed it seems new structures emerge from symbiosis. Symbiosis is not so far from sickness.
That we find sickness at the heart of this dynamic volatile struggle for balance within movement complicates and disturbs our sense of the world as safe. It is not that we want to praise illness, rather it’s symptoms appear deeply threaded into the material of the world.
Pathologising as seeing
In the psyche too, affliction creates new processes. James Hillman writes: “within the affliction is a complex, within the complex, an archetype, within the archetype, a god” (Hillman A Blue Fire p 146). He goes on to say ” Gods, as in Greek tragedy, force themselves symptomatically into awareness” (ibid p 147) .
We might stop identifying with our strangeness, our deviance, our inferiority, and rather experience all of them as images within the ecosytem of the psyche, as an ecologist might observe a beetle, a tree root and fox within the context of their eco range. One practice of imaginal ecology might be to know the ecology of the images that arise from our complexes – the images formed from our sense of inferiority, no longer felt to be personal, and to know how they relate to nature “outside”
As all we know of reality are sensual images of the world, so the all we know of ourselves are images of the places where we find life difficult. An imaginal ecology would trace how just as an immersion in psyche allows us to speak with nature’s tongue, so immersion in nature allows us to participate in it’s psyche.
Hillman spoke to illnessess of the psyche, not the body. Perhaps wisely, as biomedicine guards it’s territory jealously. Just as he was clear that he was not criticising psychotherapists by insisting on the autopoeic ways that soul pathologises, and warning against quick heroic fixes that damage and separate so we cannot criticise doctors and nurses treating the waves of sick engulfing hospitals.
When he wrote “soul can survive without it’s therapists but not without it’s afflictions.” I take him to mean that through affliction I am brought face to face with my nature, and this nature asks from me for humility. I cannot conquer my own nature, just as I cannot conquer nature. Again and again we find ourselves thinking we are outside of things that we are within. We are within nature and a part of it. We are within psyche and a part of it. Yet we persist in the thought that it is in us. Perhaps this in itself is a kind of sickness, a sickness of vision.
It seems that nature cannot do without sickness, without viral complexities, without the battle between the invasive virus and the immune system. Evolution has depended on them, and ecology uses them as part of it’s ecological psychodynamics. Nature’s balance is dynamic, it is not stable growth, it is crisis and lysis. There are gluts of mackeral then famines of ocean. The virus, so strange we can’t work out if it lives, stay mute in the body of a host that is it’s only garden. It is like matter, a dormant seed. Then something stimulates it to become a swarm, to engage it’s chemical trickery to penetrate the cell wall and replicate itself.
Ford’s dream virus address us with a meaning that is hard to ignore – as if the virus wants to turn the world into itself. A powerful image, as we can well recognise this dynamic in ourselves, the desire to reduce the other to the same is a common theme in psychotherapy. The virus, both Ford’s dream virus and the material, brings with it a message that we struggle to interpret, since we don’t trust nature to speak or have a language that allows us to hear it speak.
The message it brings may not be a message of comfort or hope. It may not be a definitive message from a singular god of nature, as nature as a complex web of interactions speaks with many tongues. The message in it’s simplest form might be “sickness and death are part of me too.” There may be other messages too, how the animals have been waiting at the margins, seals watching the busy beaches from the sea, birds restraining their song because of traffic.
This message pushes us into a collective liminal space. This crisis leads to a lysis; a loosening of social and psychological structure. This lysis brings us closer to the symbolic as arising from nature, or reality, the an indestructible life force that was also once called Dionysos.
The virus does not solve any of our human problems. It does not solve the problems of greed and destruction. It will not solve the problems we have with inequality, with housing, with healthcare. It will not solve the problem we have of understanding just how alive the world is. Sickness seems to be threaded into evolution in the form of symbiogenesis; cell walls and psychologial boundaries establish separateness, but invite invasion;invasion leads to sickness and an attempt to expel the intruder. Where niether course is possible, new forms arrive; viruses have had their hand in this. Psychological sickness too.
That does not mean we can welcome corona virus. Only understand it is threaded into the world, as a deep level, as part of it’s ecology, and so part of it’s soul. Only through understanding can any solution be imagined.
Part two looks at the virus as an ecological response to the impact of our enacted desires on nature. We look closer at the image of the virus, the relationship between psyche and nature, and the perception of the imaginal realms that allows us to participate more fully in the strange, beautiful dream of an Earth that includes us.
End of Part one.
James Hillman : A Blue Fire (Harper Collins 1989)
James Hillman: Re:Visioning Psychology (1976 Harper Collins )
Stephen Harrod Buhner: Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm (2014 Bear and Co)
Stephen Harrod Buhner: Herbal Antivirals ( 2009 Storey)
Stephen Harrod Buhner: The Lost Language of Plants (2002 Chelsea and Co)
Lyn Margulis and Dorian Sagan: What is Life? (1995 Orion)
Frank Ryan: Virolution (2009 Harper Collins)
Frank Ryan: Virusphere (2019 Harper Collins)
Viki Bramshaw: Dionysos: Exiter to Frenzy (2013 Avalonia)
A Marina Aguilar: Alchemy of the Heart: the Sacred Marriage of Dionysos and Ariadne (2017 Chiron)