Reading Wednesdays #5 – Rilke, the Soul, and the Undead

It’s been a long time since I’ve published a RW here on EL, so thanks for your patience. This week, I decided to simply share with you a few books I’ve been into lately.

In the Image of Orpheus: Rilke: A Soul History by Daniel Joseph Polikoff –

Hot off the press from Chiron Publications, this biographical work by Daniel Joseph Polikoff explores the great Austrian poet, Rilke, in light of depth psychology. I was especially interested in requesting a copy because of Rilke’s unique insights into human development. Less clinically put, Rilke, to me, possesses a deep understanding of the poetics of the soul and its realization in our personal lives. James Hillman called this “growing down” in his work, The Soul’s Code.

Polikoff explains:

“From a theoretical standpoint alone, there is good reason to presume a fertile confluence between Rilke’s life work and the thought-stream that feeds archetypal psychology, for poetry and psychology spring from and return to one and the same source: that historically excluded “third term,” soul. Archetypal psychology, by definition, takes the soul as its central subject as well as ultimate author of its insight. Moreover, the soul is––according to Hillman at least––inherently and essentially poetic.”

There is much to be gleaned from this book’s pages, though I’m only now past the introduction and into the first chapter. Even so, this book is highly recommended for readers of Rilke and depth psychology alike.

The Mind is a Poet, Deeply

If we want to understand the psyche – our consciousness – then we cannot afford to neglect the poetry of our minds. Hillman encourages this when he says, “I am working toward a psychology of the soul that is based in a psychology of image. Here I am suggesting both a poetic basis of mind and a psychology that starts… in the processes of imagination.”

So, we begin with image. We start in poetry.

These mercurial avenues shy away from the clinical mind, so we must broach them with our own poetic senses.

It’s interesting to note that the cultural philosopher, Jean Gebser, was moved by Rilke’s work and began his own study in the evolution of consciousness here, with poetry. Still another great theorist on the evolution of the mind, Owen Barfield, was a poet himself (he wrote Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning).

It’s my inclination to lean into the poetics of mind in order to more deeply understand the movements of the psyche, and thus, articulate a version of the evolution of consciousness that works with the “psychology of image.” Whether on my own or in graduate school, this is where I hope to be contributing.

I am Legend by Richard Matheson –

And now for something completely different.

Matheson’s work is a classic, and, apparently, went on to inspire modern zombie flicks.

Now about halfway through the work, I can attest to a truly mythological vision portrayed by Matheson.Whether intentional or not, I don’t know.

Unlike the movie starring Will Smith –which I did like – the novel takes place on the West Coast of the U.S., presumably near a desert. Following some form of nuclear warfare, a mysterious plague starts killing everyone off and turning them into creatures that resemble vampires. The protagonist is, for the most part, alone. Without revealing too much of the plot, most of the novel explores Robert Neville’s daily existence: rummaging for food, intoxicating himself, and contemplating the possibility of being the last man on Earth. There are certain powerful moments in the story – one picked up by the Will Smith film – that truly gets you to emote with his intense loneliness. But what I find to be the most striking is the overall “gestalt” imagery the chapters convey.

The novel constructs an apocalyptic universe where the underworld has utterly engulfed human civilization. Swarms of the dead now populate our cities.The twilight world of ghouls and vampires have consumed the waking, human world. And amidst all that, one man – tall, blond haired, the archetypal image of the Western “hero” – busies himself with makeshift science.

The last bastion of Western civilization, Neville tinkers on with his experiments in an attempt to understand what happened, but he himself appears to be a mere remnant of the Western individual. He is not a scientist. The moans and groans of the dead each night, his memories of lost loved ones, and years of solitude have eroded his humanity, let alone his sanity. A de-volution of consciousness appears to be nearly complete, and the Old World of the dead have triumphed over the living. In many ways this motif – of the Dead World overtaking and replacing the Living – went on to be the template for most zombie flicks. The Walking Dead is a great contemporary example, but with so many modern insights that it warrants its own blog post.

So here we have a fascinating apocalyptic vision of a world conquered by the tides of the unconscious, the dead, and seemingly, the supernatural.

I’ll leave the rest for my readers to check out. See you next Wednesday!

One thought on “Reading Wednesdays #5 – Rilke, the Soul, and the Undead

  1. I actually just picked up The Soul’s Code two days ago, and am looking forward to exploring his work. Liking the book so far. I watched a wonderful lecture of his yesterday. Maybe you’ve seen it:

    I love Rilke’s Duino Elegies, Stephen Mitchell’s translation. The first one opens:

    Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?
    and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
    I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
    For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
    and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
    Every angel is terrifying.

    One important thing Hillman says in the lecture is that the shadow side of archetypal psychology is the smiley face of the new age. Rilke obviously avoids this by equating beauty and terror. Going within, internalizing the external world, means confronting every facet of it, going into the dark as well as the light.

    This is, of course, why we need poetry. It refuses to be one thing. It holds many things. It covets ambiguity and spaciousness, and quick turns of direction, and large leaps, and intuition. It’s language breaking down, bowing, bending back into itself at the feet of the impossible.

    Thanks for the recommendations!


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