Matter and Soul:
Is it Projection or Animation?

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, 1997)

In all the weird photographs of the suicide of the Heaven's Gate cult a few months ago, a singular, prosaic image struck me.

In the corner of one of the rooms, behind beds occupied by purple-shrouded corpses, was one of those cheap torchieres you see everywhere these days. The popular lamp, sold at Home Depot for about $20, stands about six-feet high. Its construcion is simple: A metal bowl atop a pole holds a halogen bulb that is operated by a rheostat. As cheap lamps go, it's not bad looking, if a little clunky. I have two myself, have given a couple to friends. I prefer the black, but the Heaven's Gate folks liked the white model.

Now, I have seen this lamp everywhere -- in houses of the rich and the poor, in fancy offices and stock rooms, all over the country. It's even in the office of the editor of Creative Loafing.

And it begs a question. How does a particular object -- a particular image -- manage to insinuate itself so completely into our world? Even after you account for the utility and relative aesthetic acceptability of the Home Depot torchiere, you are still left with the question of its particularity. What about this particular lamp captures the imagination of so many people?

Psychology accounts for this and the attraction to any object as a function of projection. While earlier cultures would say something in the particular object reaches out and captures our attention, we would say something in us invests the object with meaning. A classic case is automobiles and adolescent boys. The young male is said to project his sexuality onto the automobile. A family heirloom is likewise said to carry the projection of your feelings about your family.

This attitude is fairly recent in human history. Until Cartesian science rendered matter inert, most people considered the world animated. Most of the great art and architecture of the Renaissance, in fact, was fashioned under the philosophy of <I>anima mundi<P>, the belief that there is a world soul that animates all things and beings. Under the guidance of Marsilio Ficino and the patronage of the Medicis, the Florentine Academy attempted to make the ensoulment of the world's matter obvious.

Anyone who has visited Florence feels this. In fact, there is a particular psychiatric disorder diagnosed only in cities such as Florence and Venice, where the person becomes overwhelmed by objects, their beauty. When I visited Florence a few years ago, I awoke the morning after seeing Botticelli's "La Primavera" and heard air rushing in my ears, something like the beating of wings. This sound didn't leave me for days. Later, returning to the States, I happened to read that -- under Ficino's direction -- Botticelli sought to magically evoke the earth's energies in the painting.

One can likewise not enter the cathedral at Chartres, or Notre Dame in Paris, without an experience of being overtaken by the environment. Anyone who remembers his first view of the Empire State Building as a kid remembers this experience, too. The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., has the same effect. It grabs the attention and plunges one into awe.

These, of course, are artistic objects calculated to evoke a "positive" aesthetic response. But all objects have the potential for producing an aesthetic response. I mean "aesthetic reponse" in the Greek sense of "aisthesis," which Thomas Moore says "involves sensing the things of the world in their particularity and being affected by the many ways things present themselves." He writes: "Each thing has a face and calls for our attention." In other words, I'm not talking about a sensitivity to beauty alone.

In this view, then, the objects of the world -- even mass-produced ones like the Home Depot torchiere -- are ensouled and make a statement about <I>themselves<P> and the world. "What we call projection," writes James Hillman, "turns out to be animation." (And note that "inanimate" means "without soul.")

In our world, the notion that objects are ensouled and actually reach out beyond themselves is considered primitive -- the belief of animistic religions of indigenous cultures. Still, there has been some effort to recapture matter from its inert designation. For example, depth psychologists are often willing to say that a "synchronicity" involving objects is an external statement about our internal condition. You feel stuck in your life and your house's pipes clog and your mail doesn't get delivered. The repeated failure of your car to start reflects your own low energy. These statements often resonate with a great deal of truth and have an oracular quality: Your car doesn't start and you can't get to a meeting to bid on a contract, which, it turns out, you would have won.

But depth psychology, as Hillman notes, tends to leave the subjectivity of things as a matter of interpretation in terms of our own subjectivity. If there is an anima mundi, a world soul, that animates all of creation, how can we say it only comments on our personal experience? Thus, we have to ask what the thing is expressing of itself and the world. Perhaps the car doesn't start not because it wants to teach you a lesson about the consequences of your lack of drive but because something in the car doesn't want to move or because it has something particular to express about the world.

Although the very suggestion of such an idea seems bold on the surface, doesn't it actually describe our lived experience? The boy who pats his car on the hood experiences the car's affection. The house we choose to buy, welcomes us when we first walk through its doors. The garden embraces us. The images of other objects likewise repel us. But, in either case, we do not stop to ask why.

What are the consequences of living in a world in which we regard everything but the human as insensible and unconscious? Whether you describe it as the loss of beauty -- for our world certainly becomes uglier and uglier -- or as a plea by the things of the world for more attention, we deprive our lives of the soulful richness that people of the Renaissance, for one example of many, enjoyed. Soul is diminished by the killing of matter.

Is it necessary to literalize this? No. The Medicis were business people who made great fortunes in banking and commerce. But they also understood the need to enrich soul through art and aesthetic attention to things. Science can often explain a phenomenon but not describe its lived experience. Thus, for example, the ancient Greeks could for a time have a heliocentric science but a mythology that described a golden chariot crossing the sky. Both the explanation and the lived experience are equally true.

Objects show us their faces and demand our attention. When we pay attention, the world changes.

Copyright 1997 by Creative Loafing | Published 1997

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