A Discussion on German Romanticism, the Psyche and the Nous, with Fr Alexander Tefft.

In reading about psychology and mental illness (specifically, in a book on the late romantic composer Gustav Mahler), some phenomena strike me as having a spiritual dimension to them: dissociation, for example. What is more, the focus of ‘object relations’ theory seems to me to relate as much to human relationships as to one’s relationship with God.

I wonder if you would relate the notion of healing a fractured psyche with the ascetic practice of uniting the nous and the mind and the body. (Do correct me if I’m confusing those terms, I don’t think I’ve fully understood them or how they relate).

Fr Alexander: Popular British use of ‘nous’ to mean intelligence confuses it with dianoia, the thinking brain, reflecting a local bias toward secular, empirical, self-defensive logic. These are functions of the psyche, which includes both analysis and emotion or imagination. The nous is the spirit, or ‘eye’ of the soul, that communes with God quite independently of emotions altogether. I associate both object relations theory and dissociation with psychological, not spiritual, experience.

That said, humans are a combination of soma (body), psyche (soul), and nous (spirit). The three inevitably interact. From the Life of Anthony, we know that the evil one usually attacks the psyche in order to obscure the nous. If he fails, he attacks the soma. The Fathers are not systematic or clinical psychologists, so it is hard to come up with an exact scheme. High German Romanticism (from Wagner to Mahler, even early Schoenberg) delves so deeply into the psyche that it is bound to ‘reverberate’ in the nous. However, confusing the two contributed to National Socialism.

In short, existentialism in the broadest sense is the psyche’s effort to regain access to a nous that rationalism and empiricism have blocked. Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and other aggressively atheistic existentialists are more ‘spiritual’ than a parasite such as A. J. Ayer ever could be. The more passionate the thinker, the closer in spirit to the Fathers. Philip Sherrard writes somewhere that the mind of St. Maximos the Confessor survives in Blake and Yeats – incidentally, my two favourite Anglophone poets.

Where would you place someone like Rene Guenon in this? From those essays of his I have read it seems he identifies the perception and contemplation of symbolism with the nous, or spiritual insight. Is this an example of confusing the nous and the psyche? The fact that he was highly critical of psychologists like Jung seems to point at his being against psychological reading of symbolism, but I imagine his position on the matter was more complex than that.

Yes, I believe that Guenon, like all metaphysical thinkers, inevitably confuses psyche and nous. I suspect that it is impossible to distinguish nous outside the patristic Tradition. At best, a thinker perceives it intuitively.

How was it, in your view, that the German tradition specifically came to delve deeper into the psyche than many others?

A simple answer to your question about German culture and the psyche: German folklore (e.g., the unexpurgated Brothers Grimm) tends to be dark, Angst-ridden, and associated with dense forests and inaccessible mountains. The less penetrable a topography, the more suggestive of impenetrable supernatural forces. In brief, the Gothic gives birth to depth psychology. That is my personal theory, at least.

Is the ascetic practice of hesychasm about clearing the nous to see the uncreated light? As I understand, the uncreated light is perceived by the physical eyes, so does this practice unify the soma, the psyche and the nous into one whole? This is where I was attempting to draw a parallel with the notion of healing the divided psyche. Following your earlier responses, however, I realise now they are not to be conflated.

It seems from what you’re saying that the psyche uses images of the material world as symbols to communicate deeper meanings. Am I right to think the nous bypasses symbolism altogether?

Right. The nous bypasses symbols altogether, hence the limits of applying Jung or aligning it with the psyche. The nous cannot divide, like the psyche. Instead, it becomes obscured. Ascetic practices do not ‘heal’ it but clear away the mists.

Returning to German Romanticism: what do you think about Freud’s notion of the life drive and the death drive as two opposing poles in man? This seems typical of German Romantic ideas, all the way from Goethe to the post-romantic Thomas Mann. Also: does the notion of a death drive have any link to the idea of concupiscence?

How do you interpret the fascination and allure of death that seems to influence all of us from time to time; is it a manifestation of the desire to transcend life, or an attraction towards pure destruction and annihilation (in its literal sense)? In the case of German culture, a fascination in eastern philosophy seemed naturally to follow from this attraction.

The Todestrieb is a complex response to the Fall, consisting essentially of an egocidal desire to abolish the gap of isolation from other persons and things that drives the fallen condition home. It is hardly concupiscentia, which (in Augustinian style) reduces all the passions to a kind of lust. Animal passions (sloth, gluttony, lust, some kinds of anger) embrace a primitive life force. They do not reject it.

I have always been fascinated by eros-thanatos, the drive toward death inherent in intimacy. The Liebestod motiv in Tristan und Isolde, both in the duet ‘O sink herneider’ and Isolde’s ‘Mild und leise’ finale is the best known musical example. Tristan’s line ‘So starben wir, um ungetreent …’ indicates that this is ego-cide, not suicide. It is not the self that one seeks to kill but the lonely, estranged, separated ego. ‘Ohn’ Erwachen, ohn’ Erbangen’, without waking, without being afraid, the lovers overcome the distance between them only by dying together.

This desire to ‘transcend life’ (that is, the death that unreflecting persons call life) is spiritual. In its own psychological context, it is identical to the monk’s yearning for Christ. One could say that Romanticism is the orphaned soul’s cry of pain, the Eucharist the answer: the Risen Body and Blood of the Dead Man that gives Life. In this sense, it is the theme of all my homilies.

Fr Alexander Tefft is the priest of the Orthodox parish of St. Botolph’s in Bishopsgate, London.


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