The Persephone Experience
My daughter, who turned 14 last month amid the “lockdown,” lamented to me that she never knows what day it is because every day seems just like the next. I feel exactly the same. Nothing changes from day to day and yet somehow the date on the calendar keeps moving! It is May now, according to that calendar, but it feels no different from when it was, supposedly, April or March. I feel like I’m not living day to day but eking out an existence between events: a trip to the store to buy hummus, serrano peppers, and wine when supplies run low, a dinner on my own because my daughter has an online music lesson which extends beyond the onset of “hangriness.” Perhaps I have become “unstuck in time,” like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, although I have yet to be abducted by aliens (or maybe this lockdown is my being confined to a cage in the zoo on Tralfamadore?). Other than food runs, I rarely set foot outside the house. While there is a safety/health concern, it is more the feeling of needing to hibernate or burrow down to wait out this pandemic. I keep abreast of the news—COVID-related, political, economic, and financial—throughout the day (something I was not doing before) and am very anxiously awaiting the results of cities opening up—the anxiety is intensifying with each news report and each picture of unmasked crowds shouting their demands. The experts in all areas are warning that things will not go as planned and will not follow the current, apparent downward trend unless we maintain the measures we’ve had in place for the last two months and extensively ramp up new measures for tracking and tracing. Even at this early stage here in Kansas City I see the recommendations ignorantly and thoughtlessly discarded. In a store the other day, two unmasked men were talking and one said that he was not going to wear a mask because his mother said they did no good. I somehow doubt his mother is Dr. Fauci.
It seems that people are desperately wanting and trying to get things back to “normal,” the old normal, that is. But old normal is a breeding ground for the virus—just look at where recent outbreaks have happened, even here in the Kansas City area. There’s a “new normal” in town but, as a recent New York Times headline says: “No Sign of ‘What Normal Is Going to Look Like’.” We don’t know what will happen as cities open up without large scale testing and tracing in place. We don’t know what will happen in the fall with the next flu season. We don’t know when a vaccine or therapies will be readily available. We don’t know how long it will take the economy to rebound. We don’t know how many small businesses will permanently close because they had to be shuttered too long. We don’t know what the future looks like … We just don’t know.
The feeling tone of my world right now is characterized by isolation, uncertainty, unchanging-ness, constriction, heaviness, actionless-ness, stagnation, timelessness. And this feeling tone is the same as that which I experienced several years ago when depression was the dominant influence on my body and psyche. The common factor between then and now is this distorted notion of time and the “inability to construct a future,” as the American existential psychologist Rollo May put it, describing the hopelessness characterized by depression (May, 1969, p. 243). The difference between then and now is the direction of influence: then, it was the illness of depression which stole my ability to conceive of a future; now, it is the unknowable, unimaginable future which engenders the depressive tone of my world.
Timelessness and depression are linked because timelessness is a threat to my existence. Existential psychology maintains that “time is the heart of existence” (May, 1958, p. 67) because existence, as being (as opposed to the fixed ideas of is or has been), “emerges—that is, it is always in the process of becoming, always developing in time” (May, 1958, p. 66). Therefore, “distortions of the feeling of time necessarily result in distortions of the meaning of life” (Ellenberger, 1958, p. 106). Jung attributes the qualities of oneness, indefiniteness, and timelessness to the unconscious (Carl Gustav Jung, 1958, p. 496) and these “peculiar feelings” are conveyed when the patterns of the unconscious are consciously realized (Carl Gustav Jung, 1958, p. 490). Such realizations can be psychically healing and restorative when intentionally and purposefully undertaken. However, experienced outside my own volition (which is what is happening now) they are a threat to my ego and will be interpreted as a threat to my very existence.
The timelessness of depression and of the current situation gives way to hopelessness and helplessness because my inability to create a future destroys my agency. I do not know what will happen and so cannot exert my will to influence and direct my life, to effect change. This is one reason suicide and thoughts of suicide go hand in hand with depression: in the face of utter changeless-ness, death is the only conceivable modality of change. If taken literally, this is pathology; if taken metaphorically or mythologically, this is psychology.
James Hillman reminds us of the relationship between the unconscious of psychology and the underworld of mythology in his book, The Dream and the Underworld. Similar to Jung’s description of the unconscious, Hillman says that myths “tell us that there is no time in the underworld. There is no decay, no progress, no change of any sort” (Hillman, 1979, pp. 29–30). Contrary to the exoteric view of Hades as Hell, the “House of Hades is a psychological realm now, not an eschatological realm later. It is not a far-off place of judgement over our actions but provides that place of judging now, and within” (Hillman, 1979, p. 30). But, once again, confronting Hades against my will, as the rape and abduction of Persephone tells us, is violence and a violation.
Hades, the great disruptor, “turns the world upside down. The point of view of life ceases. … and we think of death” (Hillman, 1979, pp. 48–49). It sometimes takes a hostile invasion to get us thinking about death. All too easily we, as individuals and as a collective, get blinded by the light of sunny days and green fields and beautiful flowers, bull markets and prosperity. We allow ourselves to be fitted with rose colored glasses and forget that, while “death and existence may exclude each other in rational philosophy, they are not psychological contraries” (Hillman, 1964, p. 60). Our one-sidedness makes Hades feel neglected and unwanted. Being locked away in a closet and ignored for too long, he lashes out in a monstrous rage.
This “Persephone experience” thrusts itself upon us, as individuals, in many forms (one of which is depression) and it has now thrust itself upon us, as a collective, in the form of the Coronavirus: an “invisible enemy” in the shape of a spherical crown, usually depicted in the colors red, white, green, and yellow, which penetrates our bodies, and affects our lungs/breath/pneuma/spirit/soul (further free-association with alchemical and depth psychological symbols is left as an exercise for the reader). The collective wants to be rid of this invader, to be given a magic pill that removes all traces from the body, and then vaccinated so the virus never returns. The collective wants to move past, to move on, to return to the “good old days” so they can forget that the pandemic ever happened. And I fully understand those desires. There were many, many times I desperately wanted a magic pill to eradicate my depression; desperately wanted to be cured, once and for all, so I didn’t have to continue rolling that boulder up that hill, over and over and over; desperately wanted back the “good old days” with their relationships and job and energy and optimism and naiveté. But that’s not the way Hades operates. Hades does not allow himself to be so easily brushed aside and forgotten because he, as the embodiment of “the coldness of death,” is an essential aspect of the psyche’s larger plan: “Life wants to live and to die, to begin and to end. To live what is right and to let what is false die, that is the art of life” (C. G. Jung, 2009, pp. 266–267).
Death is certainly in the collective with the daily updates on the numbers of global and U.S. deaths, predictions of numbers of deaths based on how cities handle re-opening, and discussions weighing the risk/benefit of using potential, off-label treatments. And death is certainly in the minds of individuals who have lost family and friends, who are treating and caring for the sick, and who are making the decisions which have such incredibly high stakes. But are we, as individuals and as a collective, looking for a way to avoid the confrontation with death, a way to shift the focus onto someone or something else through finger-pointing or blame or blind optimism or outright denial? Or are we allowing ourselves to cooperate with Hades and even be complicit in what he is trying to accomplish?
The Persephone experience, in all its many forms, is an invitation to transformation, an invitation to be a willing partner in our own transformation or to be acted upon as the object of transformation. Death as the basis or catalyst for transformation is frequently encountered in mythology, religion, nature, literature, and alchemy where “death represents regression to the amorphous, the reintegration of chaos, the return to the initial state, the prima materia, from which transformation can proceed (Eliade, 1978, pp. 156–157). For me, depression was a Persephone experience in which I spent time in the Underworld where everything was bleak. Many things around me died—relationships, jobs, my livelihood—and I spent a long time in grief, mourning the things I had lost. Transformation began only after I started to realize that I needed to cooperate with the process, that there was work I needed to do. One task was allowing dependencies to die where they were not helping the work to proceed: for example, the medications I had been taking. They had definitely helped, but I was relying on them too much and, for me and in my circumstances, it was time to stop taking them and start taking responsibility for getting myself back into life.
We can avoid the work being asked of us, but there are consequences attached to that choice. In Jung’s article “The Philosophical Tree,” he gives a brief analysis of 32 pictures of trees created by patients. One, in particular, stood out to me as particularly relevant because of both the picture and Jung’s commentary.
Most striking in the picture for me is the top central figure which has a shape resembling the Coronavirus. The tree, itself, also takes the approximate shape of a ring. Saturn, to the left, is associated with time (Chronos/Kronos), melancholy, death, and structure. I’m sure you will find other details that stand out. Jung’s commentary reads:
The picture shows an initial state in which the tree is unable to raise itself from the earth in spite of its cosmic nature. It is a case of regressive development, probably due to the fact that while the tree has a natural tendency to grow away from the earth into a cosmic space filled with strange astronomical and meteorological phenomena, this would mean reaching up into an eerie unearthly world and making contact with otherworldly things which are terrifying to the earth bound rationality of the natural man. The upward growth of the tree would not only endanger the supposed security of his earthly existence but would be a threat to his moral and spiritual inertia because it would carry him into a new time and a new dimension where he could not get along without making considerable efforts at re-adaptation. The patient in these cases is held back not by mere cowardice, but by a largely justifiable fear that warns him of the exacting demands of the future, without his being aware of what these demands are or knowing the dangers of not fulfilling them. His anxious resistance and aversion seem quite groundless, and it is only too easy for him to rationalize them away and, with a little assistance, brush them aside like a troublesome insect. The result is just the psychic situation shown by our picture: an inturned growth which throws the supposedly solid earth into increasing turmoil. (C. G. Jung, 2009, pp. 259–260)
To pull just one thread of this dream, we can see the parallels with our communities trying to come out of lockdown. Opening up means reaching out and “making contact with otherworldly things” (the Coronavirus). Our outward spread not only “endangers our supposed security” (our bodily health) but would also “carry us into a new time and a new dimension where we can not get along without making considerable efforts at re-adaptation” (what will the “new normal” be?). Furthermore, we are not “aware of what these demands are or know the dangers of not fulfilling them” (we are not following in the footsteps of South Korea, for example, who is further along the opening curve than we, so there is no basis on which to predict the outcome of our methods). We are seeing many to whom this “anxious resistance and aversion seem quite groundless, and it is only too easy for them to rationalize them away and, with a little assistance, brush them aside like a troublesome insect” (we are getting little guidance from the federal government and some experts feel that states are opening too quickly without a minimum level of safeguards in place). “The result is just the psychic situation shown by our picture: an inturned growth” (a potential return to the need for a lockdown).
My daughter is doing well. We watched her 8th grade “graduation celebration” on YouTube today and she is now officially on summer vacation (although that’s going to look a lot like the last 3 months for a while). She has been keeping up the best she can with her music lessons and her friends. I’m still hibernating—a little bit of time on the front porch; an early morning walk now and then, before most other people are up and about; but nothing Zoom-related. I must admit that I am enjoying some aspects of this “regressive development.” We’ve had more family dinners and family games in the last couple months than in the last couple years—what with full, mismatched schedules and a teenager asserting her independence, they had become a rarity. At the same time, I do miss the solitude I had a few days a week when my workday was done and everyone was out of the house. Whatever happens, I’m trying to stay open to what the future brings, even though I can’t construct an image of it right now.
Eliade, M. (1978). The forge and the crucible. University of Chicago Press.
Ellenberger, H. F. (1958). A clinical introduction to psychiatric phenomenology and existential analysis. In Existence: A new dimension in psychiatry and psychology (pp. 92–124). Basic Books, Inc.
Hillman, J. (1964). Suicide and the soul. Spring Publications, Inc.
Hillman, J. (1979). The dream and the underworld. Harper & Row, Publishers.
Jung, C. G. (2009). The Red Book: A Reader’s Edition (S. Shamdasani, Ed.; M. Kyburz, J. Peck, & S. Shamdasani, Trans.). W. W. Norton & Company.
Jung, Carl Gustav. (1958). On “The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation.” In Psychology and religion: West and East (Vol. 11, pp. 475–508). Princeton University Press.
May, R. (1958). Contributions to existential psychotherapy. In Existence: A new dimension in psychiatry and psychology (pp. 37–91). Basic Books, Inc.
May, R. (1969). Love and will. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Ken Buch, PhD, is the President of the Board of Directors for the Kansas City Friends of Jung, and a long-time board member. Right on cue, at 40, he stumbled upon the works of Carl Jung while re-evaluating his Christian Fundamentalist upbringing. There was an instant identification with many of Jung’s ideas and he has been a student of Jung and depth psychology ever since. Ken holds a BS in Chemical Engineering and a PhD in Aerospace Engineering. He currently works for Cerner Corporation.