a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
by John Briggs, Issue Editor
Miche Depran, 72, began life in one of the most impoverished districts of the city; he studied hard, worked in his uncle’s grocery store and rose to become a successful and much respected advertizing executive. When he retired at 68, Miche and his wife went on world cruise and Miche imagined he would devote his last active years to golfing and travel. But one day he felt something nagging him. “I realized I needed to give back,” he said. Instead of golf he chose to volunteer long hours and considerable energies to helping others by running soup kitchens, counseling services, and other community projects.
When Estela Somer, 62, reached senior citizen status, she had the opposite response. She had spent all of her adult life raising her family and working to support them. Now she wanted to “do something entirely for myself,” as she put it. She enrolled in college to pursue the degree in South American literature she had once dreamed about.
In very different ways, Estela and Miche (not their real names) were acting out their primal paradox.
The phrase the primal paradox refers to the diametrically opposed experiences that pull constantly at our consciousness.
In the first, each person experiences him or herself as a unique entity, an entirely separate being, confronting a world that lies outside: family, society, nature, the vast mysterious cosmos. This separate self has its own thoughts, is locked inside its own brain, it dies its own death and leaves other selves behind it still alive.
In the second experience, usually less present to awareness, each person implicitly recognizes that her/his individual self (physically, psychologically, and in every other way) has emerged from, and is inseparably bound to, “All Else.” Ones own unique perspective—the me—is constantly defined and refined in the crucible of others. That All Else of the world, which seems outside us, is actually in us and is us. For example, if my body had somehow germinated on a planet containing no other humans, I would have no language, no human consciousness even, for both can come about only in the context of my fellow humans. Ironically, the word consciousness, which these days refers to the individual consciousness, means etymologically “what we know together,” an acknowledgement of how each individual consciousness is made. Every breath I take into my separate body proves that my body is not separate. I am a continual exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide; I am a gut full of microbes; my brain’s neurons are made of spirochete bacteria that once upon a time invaded complex organisms and evolved with them; my body is made of atoms that were created inside stars.
An awakened sense of myself as one with All Else may come in many forms: as a religious experience of fused unity with the cosmos, as a “we are the world” moment of solidarity with humanity, as revelation about myself in the continuum of other lifeforms such as in a vision quest, or a hiker in the throes of communing with nature.
At one pole of this primal, existential paradox I am “I,” separate from any “other.” At the other pole, every other thing I see is, in some important sense, me. In whatever way I try to examine this paradox, I will find both poles of it are true. I can’t resolve the paradox by asserting the primacy of one pole (separate-self or self-as-cosmos) without becoming immediately and hopelessly entangled in the other.
Nevertheless, our lives are dominated by efforts to resolve the primal paradox or in responding to its polarized tensions. When a lonely child invents imaginary friends to talk to, he is expressing the paradox. When an adolescent insists on getting her own car and her parents insist on certain “rules” regarding the car’s use, both parents and child are wrestling with the primal paradox: a young woman’s independence and autonomy versus her inseparable identity with her family and its obligations. The primal paradox is at work when a man or woman, feels overwhelmed by the people, demands, and seeming craziness of their social environment and imagines dropping out and finding solitude. It was operating when Miche reached his senior years and felt an urge to shift from thinking of his life in terms of his own personal success and pleasures to thinking about his larger human connections. In contrast, Estela, who devoted her life energies to others became ready to explore her own self interests.
Efforts to resolve the primal paradox drive different time periods and different cultures to emphasize the primacy of one pole of the paradox over the other. For example, our 21st century materialist-technological-consumerist culture gives precedence to the “I”, the individual, as the primary reality. For us the self becomes the measure of all things. Guided by science and consumerism, each self is presumed to be a kind of closed psychological object in a universe of other material and psychological objects, all fated to decay, wear out, and pass away. Compared to indigenous and other traditional cultures, our experience of ourselves as one with nature has become rare in a society which packages its nature into consumables, photographs, statistics, parks, zoos, renewable resources. Our experience of ourselves as one with humanity or with the cosmos has become increasingly confined to such One-ness as we may conjure up on the Sabbath or during meditation practice. Still… when someone close to us dies, we can feel the loss physically as if what died was inseparable from us.
Religions typically address the primal paradox by asserting the primacy of our One-ness with our fellows and with the cosmic principle. Religious emphasis often makes the ego-self secondary, problematical, or even an illusion. Hinduism pictures the self as a snowflake melting into a warm sea. In Buddhism one-ness is achieved through the total extinction of the self, a complete merger with what Ken Wilbur calls “the unit of consciousness” or “unitary consciousness”. In Christianity, that indivisible unity comes about through faith or through the recognition of God in oneself. Rumi, the Sufi mystic speaking from the tradition of Islam, says, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”
Most religions assume the primal paradox can be resolved. Can it? Perhaps not. Or, it depends what you mean. Beneath even the most extreme valorizations of our underlying unity with the cosmos, the individual persists, though perhaps in a watered down form. As a physical and psychological being, my separate self, however illusory, is born in the crucible of others and continues to develop there. The human brain’s mirror neurons may be proof that the primal paradox works deeply inside our biological beings. They cause us to imitate others so as to become a unique self. Perhaps only death frees us from the primal paradox, though in some religious contexts even that’s not certain.
As we grapple with the primal paradox, oscillating from one pole of it to the other — from the “I” to the “other” or to the “All Else” — we each shape a unique history. We praise people who sacrifice themselves for others, those who make a “contribution” to society. At the same time we agonize, with vanity, over the meaning of our individual legacy. Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol elevates his selfishness and greed into a moral principle of the “I,” then one Christmas eve is haunted to discover that the other, the All Else side of his paradox, can’t be denied. Pay attention to mankind, Marley’s ghost tells him, that’s your business. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield — self-absorbed, alone, a lost outsider and caustic commentator about living in a society dominated by “phonies” — dreams of saving other lost children. The irrational and un-Darwinian impulse to sacrifice oneself for others — our compassion and altruism — are signs of the primal paradox at work in us. In the last decade, inspired in part by the Dalai Lama, scientists have begin to acknowledge that altruism is as much apart of our biological heritage as our drive for self-focused individual survival.
“The hero’s journey” defined by Joseph Campbell as the essence of all great fiction describes the path of a character embracing the primal paradox: identifying the isolated self with the world outside the self.
Effects of the primal paradox seem to litter the human landscape like the twisted and deformed shapes left over after a terrible fire: The lust for power and the feeling of powerlessness are born in the paradox. So is shame, guilt, hubris, heroism, and even the current generation’s fascination with zombies (betraying perhaps the implicit fear that they are themselves becoming zombies, their vital forces eaten out by social media, or that the culture is demanding that they become like automata of the corporate marketplace. A zombie is an empty self, but also a ghoul of total self-absorption.). Paranoia, narcissism, and suicidal thoughts seem to be epiphenomena resulting from the strains and tensions of the individual wound around the twists of the primal paradox. When you pray, you invoke the primal paradox by picturing a universe both inseparable from you yet separate enough to respond to your plea. When your feelings of loving or being loved are stirred, those feelings offer a bridge across the chasm between the two poles of the primal paradox: the “I” and the “the other.” The intensity of romantic love registers both the self’s ecstatic unity with, and the self’s terrible separation from, the beloved. “Stand up,” Robert Jordon implores his girlfriend Maria at the end of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Jordon is seriously wounded and about to die while holding off enemy troops. Maria must leave this deadly situation without him. Jordon tells her, “Thou art me too now. Thou art all there will be of me.” A classic high romance scene.
The paradox fuels artistic creativity — Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Mozart — as an individual artist labors with his unique vision and style to express a universal and collective truth about reality.
On the social scale privacy is an issue that involves our struggle with the primal paradox. The conflict over “banning abortion” versus “the woman’s right to choose” is steeped in the primal paradox as well.
Think of painter Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” as the dark side cry of the primal paradox. The painting shows a figure trapped within itself, or is it trapped by others on the outside pressing in? It’s unclear which.
The primal paradox constantly complicates and entangles our thoughts and psychologies. From time to time we encounter issues that seem intractable, not realizing that they stem from the twists of the primal paradox. Arguably, much of the beauty and drama of our reality springs from the ground of tension between our drive to forge our path through life as unique individuals and our drive to manifest an inseparable indivisibility from family, wife/husband, children, community or, on a different plane, our unity with the cosmos itself. The drama of love, the horror of war, the mirror of art, the rapture of enlightenment: all find their ground in this paradoxical existenz of our psyches: our persistent existential dilemma.
John Briggs was one of the early Black Earth Institute Fellows. He is author and co-author of several nonfiction books on creativity, aesthetics and chaos theory: Fractals, the Patterns of Chaos (Simon & Schuster); Fire in the Crucible (St. Martin’s Press); Seven Life Lessons of Chaos (HarperCollins), and Turbulent Mirror (HarperCollins), as well as Metaphor, the Logic of Poetry (Pace University Press). For a decade he was editor and senior editor of the literary journal Connecticut Review; in the 1970s he was managing editor of New York Quarterly.
John’s short fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies over the years. He is author of Trickster Tales, a collection of stories published by Fine Tooth Press (2005).
John taught for 25 years at Western Connecticut State University in the English Department and in the Department of Writing, Linguistics and Creative Process, which he helped to found. He was also co-founder of Western’s MFA in Creative and Professional Writing. He held the title of distinguished CSU Professor for the Connecticut State University system. He received a Phd in Aesthetics and Psychology from the Union Institute.
In one of his other lives, John has been a long-time a fine art photographer, and a student of black and white master Paul Caponigro. Samples of John’s photographs can be found on http://www.jpbriggs.com . An exhibition of his work recently showed at the Cello Factory Gallery in central London.
The idea of the “primal paradox” that is the focus for this issue of About Place links John’s interest in ancient wisdom, chaos theory, consciousness studies, literature, and creative process to the mission of the Black Earth Institute to forge links between art, spirit, earth and society
Genette Nowak Merin is a writer and English professor whose work has been published in the Connecticut Review and the Carrier Pigeon. After receiving a BA in English from Western Connecticut State University, Genette moved to New York City where she obtained an MFA in Fiction from The New School. Her work concentrates on the morality of fiction in conjunction with effective ways to build bridges of empathy between writer and reader. In addition to creative writing, she has written for several arts and entertainment publications including Jezebel Music, Zink Magazine, and Tribe, and has interviewed legends such as Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and acclaimed designer Christian Siriano. Now residing in Providence, Genette continues on her literary journey and teaches literature and composition at Three Rivers Community College and the Community College of Rhode Island.
Angela (Angie) C. Trudell Vasquez, Milwaukee, is a poet, writer, performer, activist and publisher. Her words, poetry, essays and op-eds, have appeared in print and on stage, nationally and internationally. She was a Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist in 1995. In 2003, she was a featured poet and performer at Bumbershoot, Seattle’s annual music and art festival held over Labor Day weekend. From 2009 to 2011 she was the featured poet for the Latina Monologues in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has written and self-published two books of poetry, The Force Your Face Carries and Love in War Time, through Art Night Books, her own label, www.artnightbooks.com. Her poems have appeared in Echolocations: Poets Map Madison, Turn Up the Volume: Poems About the States of Wisconsin, Verse Wisconsin, Burdock, The New Verse News, Real Change, Raven Chronicles, Little Eagle’s RE/VERSE, I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin and Local Ground(s) – Midwest Poetics. She received a Voices Award from Planned Parenthood for poetry she performed at their January 2013 Roe v. Wade. celebration event in Madison, Wisconsin. In 2014: she appeared at Fighting Bob Fest as a poet and activist, was nominated for a Pushcart award for her essay, The Making of the Latina Monologues, and won 3rd place for her poem Milwaukee #2 in the Raise Your Voices Awards through the Riverwest Arts Association. In 2014 through Art Night Books, she edited and published, Revolution & Reclamation, a collection of poems, short stories and micro tales knitting together the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, a collection highlighting love and social justice.