I once wrote about the soul in an academic book.
The book is old now and out of print.
A Cambridge Puritan told me the soul was not a fit academic topic.
In any case, the soul itself is old now and out of print.
When I was young, the soul was pictured as a milk bottle.
The bottle was partly white with grace (milk) and partly black with sin.
If the milk ran out, you were filled with sin.
Mortal Sin: Big sins which can send your soul to hell.
Now I know you’re just empty.
Dualism died sometime in the 20th century.
Descartes said Mind and Body were radically different.
But they are the same.
The mind is a flow of chemicals and electricity across networked neurons.
Alas, the system of networked neurons and its connections and settings is complex.
It is more complex than the universe.
There are more connections and settings in the brain than there are stars in the universe.
When Dualism collapsed, the Mind did not get any less mysterious.
It got more mysterious.
But it became the mind, not Mind anymore.
When I was a young teen, I read Descartes out loud pacing in my small back yard.
In those days, I pronounced his name Des-CAR-tes, not DE-cart.
I had never heard it said.
My family was not (capital “E”) Educated.
Des-CAR-tes thrilled me.
Such BOLD thoughts.
To figure out the whole world in PURE THOUGHT!
Cogito Ergo Sum; “I think, therefore I am”.
Later, a professor told me a better translation, philosophically, was:
“I doubt, therefore I am”; Dubito, Ergo Sum.
Now I know a better translation, philosophically, is:
“I am because I say so”.
It is one of the few things that are true just because you say it.
Some people used to think Mind and Soul were the same thing.
When it was Mind and not mind.
But now that the mind is chemicals, it is no longer Mind.
And the (little “m”) mind can’t be the Soul.
Because the Soul isn’t chemicals.
Though I think it is the (little “s”) soul, really, and not the Soul.
After all, even God has become god.
One of my favorite poems is “Parting”.
It is a poem by Emily Dickinson.
I once taught poetry, even though I had never read any.
Except for T.S. Eliot late at night on a cold stairwell in a time warp world:
My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
I once lived in Emily’s town.
I have been in her house.
Emily had an interesting take on religion.
She wrote her poems in the rhythm of the Protestant Hymnal.
But they are heresy through and through.
Emily’s poem—I like to call her Emily, since I once wanted to date her—is about the soul
(Yes, I know Emily was a lesbian. I expected as much back then.
Had I had the choice of what to be, my first choice would have been to be a hippo.
Human is way down on my list.
But if I had to be human, I would have wanted to be a lesbian).
Emily’s poem is about the soul, not the Soul.
That is one reason it’s heresy.
That is one reason it’s modern.
Or, maybe it is just about parting being such sweet sorrow, as Juliet said to Romeo.
Perhaps, though, Emily’s point is that “parting is such sweet sorrow” is about the soul.
Life closing has always intrigued me.
It intrigues me ever more now that I am old.
Any human knows, as Emily says, that we humans can die more than once.
When I was a teenager, I knew Emily’s lesson down deep in my soul.
Then I had strong feelings.
Things really truly passionately actually mattered.
Life was tasty and full of salt.
Today I am on a low salt diet.
Nonetheless, I can still die.
Emily is offering a proof of the soul.
So, her poem is, in a sense, an academic text.
A treatise on the soul.
There are two ways to die.
One can happen only once:
When the body dies.
One can happen many times:
When the soul dies.
The soul, unlike the body, can suffer mortal damage and live to die again.
The soul dies when the milk bottle is empty.
It can fill and empty again.
Emptiness isn’t sin.
It’s the death of the soul, the emptying of the bottle.
It is what the mystic St. John of the Cross called “The Dark Night of the Soul”.
I write this in my home town, Sedona, Arizona.
Red rocked Sedona is the New Age Capital of America.
I write in a coffee shop where New Age is the standard language.
Here is some New Age language I found on something called “The Mystic.org”:
”Dark night of the soul” sounds like a … much to be avoided experience.
Yet … seekers on the road to higher consciousness will pass through the dark night.
In fact, they may pass through several until they experience the … joy of their true nature.
Many seekers would encourage the dark night experience if they knew what it was.
However, to one engaged in the dark night, suffering seems unending.
We humans do have a nature (“… joy of their true nature”).
Though liberal academics don’t like it.
But we do not have individual natures, like “Jim’s nature”.
There isn’t a “true Jim” to be discovered or even made.
What you discover in the Dark Night of the Soul is not your true self.
But one of them. Perhaps.
There are no guarantees even in the dark.
St. John of the Cross was a mystic, though he was never in Sedona.
He too had nice things to say about the night even if it was dark:
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
These Dark Nights of the Soul, Emily’s closings, our empty bottles:
They keep getting connected to loving, leaving, being, transforming.
Emily told us, the death of the soul (a huge, hopeless to conceive closing) is all we know of heaven.
For her, too, the night could be good for the soul.
But Emily also says it is all we need of hell.
We NEED hell.
That is a BOLD idea.
We need hell to have heaven.
Hell is when the soul dies.
Hell is a time not a place.
If you cannot bear to lose something, it is hell to lose it.
Heaven to have it.
If you can bear to lose it, it is neither heaven to have nor hell to lose.
Heaven burns brightest when hell is on the horizon.
Once again Emily drives me to William.
To Sonnet 73 where death is “the glowing of such fire”:
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long
Our soul dies when what we cherish leaves, parts, dies.
Such huge, hopeless to conceive events are the ultimate trackers of the human soul.
So is dreading them, often in the dark of night, a mini-death.
Our bottle is empty then.
All the milk is gone.
But we just might find more milk.
Though in the dark night we don’t think so.
There is hope until the fire is out.
What if we stay empty?
What if we can find nothing more to cherish?
In my old days, when I was young, there was one and only one sin that could not be forgiven.
It was called the sin against the Holy Ghost (later known as the Holy Spirit).
It was suicide, the absence of hope.
But it always seemed to me, even back then, that the worst sin was denying others,
Or not supplying others,
Which is to say,
Making it hard or impossible for them to find things to cherish.
Our soul is the part of us that can die more than once.
It is the part of us that can come back to life.
Like vampires recovering from their wounds in the dark.
It is, as Emily says, our immortality.
The soul is not chemical, because it is not inside us.
It is a bond between us and something else, something cherished.
What is cherished on the other end of the bond is not in us.
When the bond breaks—or is about to break—we see what we cherish in its clearest brightest light.
That’s what William said.
And we die. Our life closes.
That’s what Emily said.
Then, perhaps, it opens again.
It seems to me that the soul IS a fit academic topic.
How can we cherish the world and others before it is too late?
How can we give all people hope when they have died for a time?
How can we fill their bottles again with milk?
And won’t that fill ours, too?