In Defense of the Daimonic

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How could a wicked character be given by the Gods? –- Plotinus

In The Soul’s Code, Hillman (1996) offers the acorn theory as an alternative to explaining human life in terms of genetic determinism or as a sheer accident. The idea for the acorn theory came from Plato’s “Myth of Er” in The Republic. Following Plato, Hillman asserts that every soul (psyche) is granted a unique daimon before birth, and this daimon has chosen a pattern that individuals must live while on earth. The daimon leads the soul into the world, but the daimon is forgotten at birth. Although forgotten, the daimon remembers the destiny of the soul and guides the person through life, “therefore the daimon is the carrier of your destiny” (Hillman, p. 8). Prior to birth, people chose the body, parents, place, and circumstances most suited to the soul. We are summoned into the world with a calling. From this, Hillman concludes: (1) the daimonic call is a fundamental fact of human existence; (2) people should strive to align life with the call, and (3) come to understand that accidents, illnesses, and all maladies are in the service of fulfilling the call.

It is important that we hear the double sense of the Plotinus fragment: one’s character is one’s daimon. For the ancient Greeks your character is “given” to you in some sense—who you are is not completely within your control. “Your” actions reveal “your” character but are also something given to you, something granted by the divine. Daimon is the uncanny because it presents itself in everything ordinary without being the ordinary. With the ancient Greeks, the daemonic appears not only through elements “inside” the self—the passions, the blood—as noted above, but also “outside” the self—in wind, rain, fire, animals.

Elaborating on the daimon, Heidegger (1982) notes its relation to daio, which he translates as “to present oneself in the sense of pointing and showing” (p. 151). This sense of pointing or showing related to a significant characteristic of the Greek gods—they give signs and point. The astonishing being of the ordinary, what is strange and uncanny, takes name and figure and form in the work, as the god. The god is an indication, a sign, a symptom, of how things are and who we are. As a result, daimon points to Being, daimon indicates invisible and ungraspable Being itself, whereby what is divine is manifest in the abyssal space of Being itself.

What Heidegger’s interpretations of daimon show is that the word is a recognition of something divine, overwhelming, unsurpassable, which emerges in, though, and from our actions and refuses our control. In that way, the ancient Greeks came to know and find them dwelling in the neighborhood of the uncanny and strange. What was meaningful and significant was not seen beyond this world, beyond the things in the world and the things that take place in the world, but in themselves and things themselves. The gods then are not objects of speculation or a theology but indications of the forces preternatural powers active in the world in and around us that reveal the significant of things. What is divine is incomprehensible not because it so utterly transcends us but because it is so close, so near, so simple, so ordinary, and so specific to particular events and activities.

Heidegger, thoughtfully responding to the Greeks, to Holderlin, to Nietzsche’s madman, speaks of the gods and the last god. The measure given by daimon by the uncanny, but the last god, is questioning. Questioning, because it rattles the familiar understanding of things and ourselves, ‘makes’ things strange, ‘makes’ us strangers in a familiar world. In questioning, we become who we are: open to possibilities, open to the mysteries of the world and ourselves. The god of the thinker is the daimon, the uncanny, the last god, that calls for questioning, whereby we are true to ourselves as thinkers and as human beings. This essential thinking is a faith, where the faith of philosophy, religion, and theology is in doubt, in question, even as it shows faith in questioning, in inquiry, in asking the meaning of Being. Faith in doubt reveals and is revealed by the daimon.

The daimonic call becomes demonic when one becomes possessed, mistaking the timeless, immortal qualities of the daimon as one’s own. Examining the biographies of multiple serial killers, Hillman (1996) demonstrates how the daimonic call becomes the demonic call. In each instance he shows that from an early age there are certain characteristics:

the cold eyes and icy heart; the humourlessness; the certitude, arrogance, inflexibility, purity; the fanatical projection of shadow; the being out of step with time; the mystical sense of luck; rage at being blocked, crossed, or dissed; the paranoid demand for trust and loyalty; the attraction to myths and symbols of “evil” (world, fire, apocalypse); raptures, seizures, and moments of estrangement and/or call to transcendence; the fear of powerlessness as ordinariness, ignorance, impotence. (p. 239)

All that is destructive to others, and ultimately, destructive to the self, arises from an unwillingness to recognize human limitations. Feeling as though one must literally live up to all the daimon’s expectations, one becomes absorbed in the daimon’s “boundless vision and manic impulsion” (Hillman, p. 241).

The person obsessed with destructive fantasies is stuck in the literal, unable to experience psychological death. Conversely, when one is able to deliteralize such fantasies, psychic reality takes on a numinous and non-destructive quality. One can accuse not only the destructive patient of being stuck in literalism, but also the medically minded psychology that treats such patients. Steeped in the medical perspective, such psychologists understand destructiveness as pathology that is in need of a cure, rather than as a reality to be lived and explored. Seeing through destructive fantasies, a therapist who welcomes the fantasies and presents their desires in psychological form opens a therapeutic discourse more concerned with lived experience than silencing symptoms. This therapist welcomes the arrival of the destructive urge as a sign of transformation and helps the patient see through such experiences, and thus freeing him or her from the organic, literal fixation.

So what does this mean to us, here, today, in light of the recent Connecticut school shooting? Something tragic, terribly tragic, has happened and someone and/or something is to blame! As I watched the footage, I was filled with rage and sadness…but I wasn’t surprised. Many of us in the field have recognized that there has been nothing to suggest that such incidents will discontinue, because we have not attended to the underlying problems. As Heidegger pointed out, the individual can only take up possibilities disclosed from the cultural-historical index within which he or she is situated. To say otherwise would be to suggest that the possibility was generated ex nihilio. Binary thinking, one kind of literalistic calculative disclosure, does not accurately reflect the complexity and depth of such a tragedy. Rather, there are a number of elements, often mixing in various and dynamic ways, that go into the making of catastrophe. Gun access, psychotropic medication, and psychiatric labels are all worthy of debate. Yet, focus on one or some combination of these three things distracts from the underlying contexts and meanings that make a massacre possible. Stated differently, such things are themselves symptoms and focus upon one or more of them constitute a literalism.

As Hillman points out, there really are a handful of explanations presently available to understand the etiology of the psyche of a killer. First, there is the early trauma explanation. According to this hypothesis, a killer’s psyche is the result of early traumatic, uncaring, and often tyrannical environment. The murderer’s behavior is ultimately the result of attempting to gain mastery in a traumatic environment. Second, there is the hereditary explanation. The murderer’s mind is the result of a biological abnormality, a genetic trait inherited from past generations. The inherited impairment, usually explained as a chemical imbalance in the brain, causes antisocial and violent behavior. The correction of such a physical deficiency is physical interventions. Historically, this has included lifelong institutionalization, castration, electroconvulsive therapy, lobotomy and other invasive modalities. While some of these modalities continue to be utilized, the common contemporary means for correcting this chemical deficit is psychotropic medication.

Third, there are group mores. This hypothesis, while acknowledging genetic and environmental influences, accents the primacy of mores. Street gangs, the accepted “laws” of prison life, military indoctrination, and or participation in sub-sects of society influence the individual with their mores. Often, the mores of the specific group are seen as more valued than the laws and mores of dominant culture, thus causing a disparity of belief systems. Free will constitutes the fourth hypothesis. The individual is solely responsible for his or her choice and decision making process. What happens to one may be influenced by a variety of factors, but ultimately the decision lies with his or her own judgment. From this perspective, destructive behavior is not the result of any mitigating causal elements, but the decision of a morally defective person. Some spiritual and religious traditions look to the fifth hypothesis, karma. One’s past lives influence his or her karmic “debt.” While such ‘debt’ may be imprinted genetically, ultimately, behavior is the result of karma from past incarnations. Many, if not most, of the traditions in depth psychology understand so-called “evil” behavior as a result of the unconscious, specifically the shadow. According to Jung, the shadow is what lies in the dark from the perspective of the ego. The fact that Jung himself did not label the shadow as inherently evil if often ignored in depth psychology. For Jung, it was simple what was left in the ‘dark’ of ego consciousness. However, it could contain the potential for evil, if certain aspects of the personality fall into shadow and become autonomous complexes acting upon the ego of their own volition.

Lacuna constitutes the seventh hypothesis. With this, it is not an excess or autonomous shadow or unconscious that is at work, but a fundamental lack of something “human.” The Catholic tradition calls this privation boni, a primary absence of good. Destructiveness, from this perspective, is understood as the qualities that rush into fill this void, like gas filling a vacuum: impulsiveness, drug and alcohol addiction, rigidness, imperviousness to guilt and shame, stunted intellectual and moral maturity, unwavering belief in moralism (a super-ego). Such a person fundamentally lacks the psychological equipment to feel into or understand the experience of another living being.

Finally, there is the daimonic explanation. There is a specific character, fate, truth, necessity, and calling that is uniquely yours. These factors may or may not fit into past lives, biology, environment, mores, etc., yet these things lie outside of one’s knowledge base and the present theoretical themes. The daimonic call is a call to transcendence, to fully become whom you were meant to be. The daimonic call (constituted by character, fate, truth, necessity, calling) is the divine spark that compelled Van Gough to paint, Mozart to compose, Hemingway to write, Napoleon to conquer, anyone could increase the list ad infinitum. The same divine spark, the impetus to transcend, also contains the counter-pull to the demonic. It is quite possible to transcend via transgression: the malicious delight in inflicting pain, the purging of one’s psyche upon the Other, the powerful thrust of being propelled from one’s circumstance powered by hatred and malice, vengeance. Destructive acts, like creative ones, feel good; it is the same energy, the same call. Senseless killings are not “senseless” because the killer is not rational, but because the deviance defies reason. Often clarity of purpose and focus are acutely present as well as a sense of mastery and absorption in the activity. That unique sense of “I-ness” that is manifested most keenly in masterful acts of creativity is too present in acts of destruction. The daimonic calling demands dignity. It manifests not only as a divine presence (guardian angel of Christian traditions) that guides, calls, cajoles, urges, but can also command, demand, invade, and possess. The base, primitive fear and acting out, is essentially the fear of not living up to the daimon’s impossible standards. When in touch with this fear, there is a rush to literalize, to concretize, who or what is to blame, characteristic of all psychopathology. The outcast, the loner, the reject, is not alone; he or she is in direct contact with the daimon, withdrawing from the human into an invisible private existence. There, the loner endeavors to create a world fashioned upon a dignity and splendor concealed but envisioned. While debates over guns, psychiatric diagnosis, and psychotropic medication may all be appropriate, they are all responding to the literal. The demonic presence in human existence is the result of a confused and confusing relationship to the daimonic. Such incidents will continue until we find, within possibilities disclosed by our social-historical index, the appropriate relationship between the individual’s existential finitude and the daimon’s potential, between the transcendent calling and the person being called.

Heidegger, M. (1982) GA 54, Parmenides, vol. 54 of Gesamtausgabe. Frankfurt: Klostermann.

Hillman, J (1996). The soul’s code. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

— Brent Potter

Today’s guest contributor, Brent Potter, is a psychotherapist with 20 years of direct clinical service. His first book, Elements of Self-Destruction, is due out via Karnac Books in February, 2013.

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