Art and Soul: Translation, Transformation and Transcendence

Art seems to me to be above all a state of soul.
—  Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

We as individuals create our own reality and to make the story of our life a healthier one we can accept the challenge and the opportunity to exercise our creative powers in a more profound and conscious way. The same inner wisdom that will guide us in creating an individual life of enhanced awareness will also reveal itself in the collective unconscious in many ways.

Mythology, for example, is a universal language explaining fundamental aspects of human behavior. Another such language is art in all its forms of expression. “Plato in his beautiful dialogue, the Symposium, described what he called the true artists—namely, those who give birth to some new reality.”[i]  Artists perform the function of enlarging human consciousness. Their creativity is one of the most basic manifestations of a person fulfilling their reason for being in the world.

As we continue our paradigm shift we begin to see and understand things that were formerly elusive. Our world is becoming more beautiful and more meaningful, more profound and more supportive. Whether we engage in traditional artistic expression ourselves or enter into a process of appreciating the artistic expression of others, we will encounter beauty and truth and that encounter will nurture our own awakening process.

In this essay we will use three of the most powerful and revelatory works of literature to illustrate how art reveals our emerging True-self.

Robert Johnson and his extraordinary analysis of three classics in the world of literature will help us appreciate the relationship between Self-realization and art. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Goethe’s Faust are representative of the three developmental stages in an individual human life, namely childhood, adolescence and maturity. We will, with Johnson’s help, go beyond that conventional model of human development into the realm of spiritual awakening. We will end up with an archetypal pattern that we can use to measure our own process of transforming our conditioned behavior and transcending our false self.

“The archetypal pattern is that one goes from the unconscious perfection of childhood, to the conscious imperfection of middle life, to the conscious perfection of old age. One moves from an innocent wholeness, in which the inner world and the outer world are united, to a separation and differentiation between the inner and outer worlds with an accompanying sense of life’s duality, and then, at last, to enlightenment—a conscious reconciliation of the inner and outer in harmonious wholeness.”[ii]

Unconscious Perfection: Don Quixote

Don Quixote represents the human in naïve and unconscious “childhood.” He is today’s American in denial of reality in a false-self controlled illusion. He is Adam in the Garden of Eden before “The Fall,” before his encounter with Eve and the serpent (knowledge of the pairs of opposites or duality) or before the awakening into the next state of consciousness. He exists in the state of unconscious perfection (P-B).

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza represent the struggle between the false self (ego) and the shadow that create much of today’s suffering. There is another aspect of Don Quixote, his idealism, which turns out to be in alignment with a higher truth. He intuits the perfection of the Universe and sees the beauty in the world that others are blind to. We can feel the struggle between his True-self and his false self.

“He loses every time he relied on his sword [his intellect and the false-self projection of his shadow]; it is his poetic imagination [intuitive True-self] that is victorious. Don Quixote is ‘pure spirit disguised as fantasy,’ as Thomas Mann once wrote.”[iii]

As the story of Don Quixote comes to an end, the cynical Sancho Panza comes to appreciate the idealism of the “tilter at windmills” and Quixote comes to see that his sentimentality and fantasizing have been illusions. The change in awareness begins to diminish the chasm between the false self and the shadow and Cervantes has made his contribution to the creation of consciousness. We see Quixote as the iconoclast who is motivated to attack ignorance albeit within the context of P-B. Without the support of a profound paradigm he is doomed to failure—a tragi-comic hero—but a hero, nonetheless.

Conscious Imperfection: Hamlet

Like Don Quixote, Hamlet is still contained in P-B but is less unconscious. It is beginning to dawn on him that “something is rotten in Denmark.” Today he would be the person who is reading his morning newspaper or screen and can no longer deny the reality that is unfolding there every day.

In Freudian terms, his superego is becoming disturbed, and the ego is losing its ability to keep him sufficiently mesmerized in the meaningless pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power. His undoing is that he is unable to make the decision to awaken and in effect decides to stay asleep—an outcome that we dare not let happen today. “He cannot make up his mind whether to follow the dictates of custom and its barbaric solutions or to listen to the enlightenment of his own soul and conscience. He does neither and finally loses the value of both.”[iv]

Hamlet denied the reality of his shadow as many of us do today and therefore could not understand and deal effectively with the horrific violence that came to surround him. If we think that a 400-year-old play has no relevance today it’s because we are not able to comprehend and appreciate the deep and enduring messages that are contained in the collective unconscious or in the vision of the bard of Avon.

Conscious Perfection: Faust

From the story of Faust, we learn that we must acknowledge our shadow. “Faust picks up where Hamlet lost the battle and provides a solution for us to this most modern dilemma. He finds his way out of this paralysis by interacting with his shadow, Mephistopheles, until each has been redeemed. The story of Faust is one of the great statements of optimism, hope and redemption in Western literature.”[v]

Many of us have to “hit bottom” before we are sufficiently motivated to begin the process of waking up, before we have the “insight” that shifts our “view” of reality. “The moment of despair that is also the moment of redemption and enlightenment.”[vi]

Living in the present moment is the goal of our creative process and that means ceasing to identify with the past or the future. We often become trapped in guilt, shame and regret associated with the past, which of course no longer exists. Or we can become filled with anxiety about an imagined future which probably will never come to pass, at least as our fear-driven false self imagines it. “We can find an alternative interior environment for experiencing and integrating our lost youth in the realms of symbol, ceremony [ritual], art and imagination. These languages exist apart from time and space. As George Bernard Shaw observed, ‘there is no alternative in life to torture [suffering] except fine art.’”[vii]

If we undertake the process of waking up which involves shifting from P-B to P-A, we can count on the Universe and our own intuitive wisdom to support and nurture us. And in doing this we will not just survive the collapse of American culture—we will transcend it. We will no longer be contained in that story or any other narrative—we will have grown beyond the need for a worldview because we will live in the present moment beyond time and space in the eternal NOW.

We will have also transcended any need for the old institutions of P-B including religion. Sin and Satan existed only in the child-like and adolescent minds of Don Quixote and Hamlet because they lacked a psyche awake enough to formulate a more sophisticated story.

Faust’s Mephistopheles was the symbolic embodiment of the false self, the shadow and the collective unconscious. We can banish the concepts and belief in heaven and hell, sin and sorrow, death and disaster to the land of myth along with the gods and goddesses of Olympus and the god of the Old Testament.

We will have no need for the old story—we will see it clearly as the paradigm of an unconscious people lacking in awareness and compassion. We will have completed our Faustian bargain—the transaction will have been honored.

We will be FREE.

Art and Soul: Translation, Transformation and Transcendence

[i]     May, Rollo. “Creativity.” Shift: At the Frontiers of Consciousness. Petaluma, California. March-May 2005, page 37.

[ii]     Johnson, Robert. He: Understanding Masculine Psychology. New York: Harper. 1989, page 6.

[iii]    Johnson, Robert. Transformation. San Francisco: Harper. 1991, page 21.

[iv]    Ibid., pages 36-37.

[v]     Ibid., page 52.

[vi]    Ibid., page 55.

[vii]   Ibid., pages 68-69.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.

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