The Anchorite

A succession of words does not have only one meaning.

Carl G. Jung, The Red Book

In one of my favourite chapters in the Red Book, Jung encounters (in his dreams or imagination) an anchorite living alone in the desert. He has a big book, a gospel of some kind, which he reads constantly, from cover to cover, over and over again. Jung is surprised to hear the anchorite is not bored after reading the same book for years. The anchorite rebuffs the comment and explains:

Surely you know that one can read a book many times—perhaps you almost know it by heart, and nevertheless it can be that, when you look again at the lines before you, certain things appear new or even new thoughts occur to you that you did not have before. Every word can work productively in your spirit. And finally if you have once left the book for a week and you take it up again after your spirit has experienced various different changes, then a number of things will dawn on you.

Carl G.Jung, The Red Book

I fully agree with the anchorite. Much of what we like or dislike in a book, what we interpret in a scene or the way we see the characters, is our own projection, our own image reflected. As we change, what we see in the book changes too. As we learn (or unlearn), as we live, other parts of the book are suddenly unveiled, as if they had just been written for us. If I only had one book, and if that book were the book, containing all the answers to my questions, then I would read it again and again until, at last, something would resonate with me, something that I knew was true. And finding this precious little jewel would only make me want to dig for more. Jung expresses this much more elegantly:

You sit and lean against the wall, and look at the beautiful, riddlesome totality. The Summa lies before you like a book, and an unspeakable greed seizes you to devour it. Consequently, you lean back and stiffen and sit for a long time. You are completely incapable of grasping it. Here and there a light flicker, here and there a fruit falls from high trees which you can grasp, here and there your foot strikes gold. But what is it, if you compare it with the totality, which lies spread out tangibly close to you? You stretch out your hand, but it remains hanging in invisible webs. You want to see it exactly as it is but something cloudy and opaque pushes itself exactly in between. You would like to tear a piece out of it; it is smooth and impenetrable like polished steel. So you sink back against the wall, and when you have crawled through all the glowing hot crucibles of the Hell of doubt, you sit once more and lean back, and look at the wonder of the Summa that lies spread out before you. Here and there a light flickers, here and there a fruit falls. For you it is all too little. But you begin to be satisfied with yourself, and you pay no attention to the years passing away. What are years? What is hurrying time to him that sits under a tree? Your time passes like a breath of air and you wait for the next light, the next fruit.

Carl G. Jung, The Red Book

Words enable us to convey a message with precision. They provide precision by establishing limits to a concept. But there are universal ideas and concepts that that are too vast to fit into a word or a million words. Still, we try to constrain these ideas, so that they will fit. By using words, we limit the limitless so that we can assimilate it. We use words as protections from endless concepts that we cannot fully grasp. Not only in an attempt to define these concepts, but also to limit them. Words provide shelter from the incommensurable, which we know exists but cannot understand. By giving it a name, by placing the infinite into a defined and limited container, our brain can then accept it.

It reminds me of those westerns in which the characters arrive at a small wooden gate in the middle of an immense field, with nothing on either side, and one of them announces “Welcome to my ranch!”. An irrelevant gate trying to put a border to an immensity that is so much bigger than us. Humans, like other animals, have an instinct to build shelter. It protects us from rain, wind, predators or from other humans, it makes us feel safe. A small piece of ground that we know, that is always the same. Home.

We build walls of words so that we can limit the unlimited and make ourselves cosy. Since we cannot assimilate the concept of god in its totality, we describe it with words, reducing it to something we can understand. We then we make that description, those words, our new god. A reality in which we can dwell.

The writing lies before you and always says the same, if you believe in words. But if you believe in things in whose places only words stand, you never come to the end. And yet you must go an endless road, since life flows not only down a finite path but also an infinite one. But the unbounded makes you anxious since the unbounded is fearful and your humanity rebels against it. Consequently you seek limits and restraints so that you do not lose yourself, tumbling into infinity. Restraint becomes imperative for you. You cry out for the word which has one meaning and no other, so that you escape boundless ambiguity. The word becomes your God, since it protects you from the countless possibilities of interpretation. The word is protective magic against the daimons of the unending, which tear at your soul and want to scatter you to the winds. You are saved if you can say at last: that is that and only that. You speak the magic word, and the limitless is finally banished. Because of that men seek and make words.

Carl G. Jung, The Red Book

Symbolic language is not only more universal and intuitive, but also better suited to refer to these endless concepts. Not even with a million words would we be able to define them, as plenty of books prove. I wonder if poetry, which uses a more symbolic language, could do this better. But of course, those words don’t mean – or don’t just mean – what they would mean in prose. They are the same bricks, but used to build something completely different. Something with a more intuitive meaning that goes beyond the meaning of the individual words themselves. Poetry uses our precise and sophisticated words to go back to the primitive symbolic language, which connects more directly with intuition than with reason.

Words or no words, at the end of the day, what is the message that we feel this urge to communicate? That we are not alone, I guess. What else…