Grieving The Gods: Spirituality At The End of An Age

Keith Hackwood on Peter Kingsley

Peter Kingsley. Catafalque Carl Jung & the End of Humanity. Catafalque Press, 2018. Two Vol., $75.00. (hardback)

Catafalque. A word to conjure with. Velvety on the tongue but dark and inclined downward somehow; formed in precision and yet obscure in modern usage. It sounds important, significant, but what exactly does it mean? As a book title it’s immediately arresting, commanding a deeper attention. The great novelist Miguel de Cervantes once wrote a poem about a catafalque in the autumn of 1598, following the death of the self-styled “Enlightened Despot” King Phillip II of Spain—he of the Armada, the Counter-Reformation and the untold plunder of the first global empire or Imperium Hispanicum, to many simply the New World. In it Cervantes considers the gigantic, baroque structure swiftly erected by the city of Seville to honor the deceased monarch. And just as the poem’s narrating figure stands bewildered in front of the sheer scale and consequence of the edifice, so we as readers come to this Catafalque and recognize in it our own memorial. As Cervantes sees through the death of all-consuming royal power, so we are brought to see through the dying time of Western civilization itself. Now we are come to see this thing down, and with it ourselves.

To do this is an astonishing achievement, and it seems to me there can be barely any writers capable of it. But Peter Kingsley is assuredly one such writer. And he succeeds, God knows at what cost to himself. I will start by reporting the, for me, deeply embodied experience of reading this book. In the reading I felt, physically, by turns lightened; energized; crushed; squeezed; profoundly fatigued; shivered with gasps of laughter; crushed again; and finally, achingly, brought in on a night-time high tide. I mean this as the highest compliment. Rare is it that a book hurts so deeply and is, at one and the same time, the salve to the hurting. There were points where I read, and scribbled notes, for two days without stopping except to sleep a bit. The work of attention is relentless—and rightly so.

The two volumes of this book are very much like two rivers in parallel flow. One tumbles through an overworld landscape, shaping a course that describes and sings out the life and broad context and even broader significance of Carl Jung. The other is an underground river cascading through cavernous depths, forming a forest of stalactites, bursting out into daylight through an occasional series of cataracts—a story and its understory, rich and dense beyond imagining. One can choose to take both river routes, paddling above and spelunking below. And I recommend them both: there are inestimable treasures above and below. In light of this vast work, I think it’s fitting to consider the catafalque at all levels—as architectural fact, as theatrically scaled public memorial scaffold, as etymological crucible and event horizon, and as a threshold the crossing of which necessarily changes one utterly. Dictionary definitions have it that a catafalque is a stage erected in a church to support a coffin during a funeral and that the usage comes either via French during the 1640s or directly from the Italian catafalco, “scaffold,” which itself perhaps comes from Latin catafalicum which in turn derives from Greek kata plus fala, a word of possibly Etruscan origin meaning “scaffolding, wooden siege tower.”

So far, so dry. But in Peter Kingsley’s usage, as he reveals in the final chapter of the book, the word is dream-born and is something in the order of an instruction or imperative. As a title it reveals absolutely everything in one condensed, luminous effulgence of meaning. This book is made to serve as the catafalque of what we commonly call “the West”—nothing less.  It quickly becomes apparent that this dream-born aspect is a golden thread running through the text, revealing and veiling the arc of becoming by turns. We hear of several life-changing dreams directly given to the author, plus many more that shaped the life and work of the book’s main human protagonist: Carl Gustav Jung. And behind these individual dreams we can hear, if we know how to listen, the deepest dream visions out of which the West itself emerged—as well as the deliberate misinterpretations, convenient alibis, blatant misunderstandings and cover stories to which that primal dream has been subjected for millennia. In fact the deceased, for whom the enormous craft and effort of labor to create this catafalque have been expended, turns out not just to have died but to have been murdered. And the whole territory of this book is a vast crime scene of barely comprehensible proportions. But Kingsley’s book is no cheap whodunit. The patricidal ruination at the core of this criminality has our own fingerprints all over it, even though they are only the latest layer of a forensic palimpsest whose most ancient strata contain the distinctively grubby whorls and furrows of Plato, Aristotle, Porphyry and many other culturally lauded ancients. Those familiar with Peter Kingsley’s earlier work will recognize the modus operandi of these distinguished felons—as indeed they will be familiar with the Presocratic healer–prophets such as Pythagoras, or Parmenides and Zeno of Velia, or Empedocles of Acragas, who were conscious progenitors of our western culture and whose words or persons were assassinated. Plato and Aristotle, by comparison, are exposed as always clever, occasionally earnest, intrinsically narcissistic and fundamentally on the take. By their thefts and postures, through their subtle additions and omissions, and certainly through their hubris in assuming to penetrate with their so-called reason and logic what had been given by the divine to the broken-open human soul, they set in motion the consequences for the West that we moderns are all living out today.

Jung himself states the case in his famous Red Book (which is explored in profound depth and to great effect in Catafalque) when he recounts being asked by the Spirit of the Depths: “To explain a matter is arbitrary and sometimes even murder. Have you counted the murderers among the scholars?” And this is where another repeating thread is visibly drawn out: the question of prophecy itself, and of divinely bestowed vision as the periodically emergent restorer of the capacity for life inside the living organism of a culture. The thesis is extended and the case fully made for Jung himself being just such a seer, a conduit of prophecy, one who had descended into the abyss and returned garlanded with freshly formed wisdom and the intimate knowledge of the craft of ancestors and ancients only for the old pattern to repeat itself again—a pattern of prophecy lost, ignored, despised, sanitized, inverted, and of a Pharisee class self-appointed to keep the wildness of wisdom shut out from a newly minted system of desiccated reason. It’s the old trick, again, of those addicted to competence while being incapable of contemplating mystery and learning the poverty of their own manner. “Thank God I am not a Jungian,” we hear Jung himself bellowing into the night on the edges of Lake Zurich.

That, in the most inadequate of nutshells, is Catafalque the book.  But there is far more here than a review can hope to do justice to. This is a book for now, and its consequences are enormous; its implications dire. It clearly has arrived to begin the funeral proceedings for a culture that has not yet realized it’s dead. As such it will be heftily resisted, dismissed, rejected and ignored. And those hateful reactions will be the signs of speaking truly. As Kingsley is only too aware, it was always thus in the matter of the West. For instance there is the repeated and aching theme of ancestors, ancestry and the ancestral (“I work for the ancestors,” Peter Kingsley states plainly and more than once) along with the enormous grief this entails and in fact imposes on us as an obligation. The witness statements testifying to the primal murder of those laws bestowed on us by the gods of the underworld are drawn through the author’s own psyche, which itself stretches out as a bridge across time so that a “truing” can be completed. I have no doubt that contact with such powers has been at enormous personal cost to the author, and yet his gift has been delivered to us in full form. This is the greatest blessing of the work: that it’s the very thing it advocates for and howls to in lament. One can only trust it will find readers worthy of this gift—broken enough to stand conscious and wise at the deathbed of the West.

Among the many particular areas of special note and interest is the detailed exploration of Jung’s great body of work and of the inadequacy with which it has been translated, engaged with and understood. Instead of Jung we have a domesticated and apotropaic “Jungianism,” cultivated as a defense against the startling implications of Jung himself and his war-forged words.  Then there’s Peter Kingsley’s precisely crafted sense of “historical continuity” which is so essential to his opus as a whole and which, here too, evokes the urgent need to rediscover the essential mystery of the West. There’s also the interwoven thread of Christianity: another definitive expression of Western praxis but one in which the collapsed star of direct encounter with Christ somehow inverts into a ruinous state where, to the devastating exclusion of nature and everything else, “the human heart is the only sanctified place on earth.” Kingsley deftly applies a kind of forensic method to everything we take for granted—for example pointing out that when considering what Jung wrote or said one first has to ask which of Jung’s multiple personalities was speaking or writing, and to whom, and for what purpose. Hence the sifting of sense from contradiction, mother lode from fool’s gold, revelation from prophetic veil. Those familiar with the author’s previously published work will already have a healthy respect for the breadth as well as the depth of his scholarship and craft, which is especially visible here in a four-hundred page volume of endnotes. It also shows up in his devastating deployment of source material—highlighting for instance the observation by Jung’s English translator, R.F.C. Hull, that Jung was “a walking asylum in himself as well as its head physician.” And certainly much consideration is given to madness: to the necessity for wailing and lamentation, to the ways in which the living not only neglect but overrule the dead as well as the wishes of the dead, with the resulting depletion of life and with the direst of consequences for our collective culture.

There is a wonderful exploration of the work of Henry Corbin, the Islamic scholar and friend of Jung’s (Kingsley movingly describes them as being “like horses recognizing one another by their scent”), who helped to make famous the term ‘imaginal’ (unskilfully pickpocketed by James Hillman, as we learn, to Corbin’s chagrin). All the while we are reminded and constantly confronted—through Jung’s own life, through Kingsley’s own travels and peregrinations, through the evidence before our own eyes— of the ways in which we are ourselves Faustian entities, “tiny Lucifers silently murdering our elders.”

There are particular flavors teased out that reflect on Jung’s relationship to America and to the very specific way in which the North American continent today harbors a perfect disease vector of technological materialism and brutal rationality. We learn that when asked towards the end of his life what he was most afraid of, Jung replied: of unconsciousness, of modern science and “above all of America.” The great prophetic arc of the book weaves through Trojans and Greeks, Cassandra, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Empedocles; through the Hebrew Job, Jonah, Isaiah, Elijah and Habbakuk; the Gnostic Mani, the Christian Joachim di Fiore and Meister Eckhart; through Jung’s own Master Philemon as well as Corbin’s inner sheikh Shihâb al-Dîn Yahyâ Suhrawardî. Even Christ, Buddha, Muhammad and Zoroaster find their place. All share in a sense of predicting the past, weaving it ancestrally into the emergent present, most often through enormous suffering—and not for gain or success (or failure, for that matter) but “because they have to.” In this exalted lineage of conscious suffering Jung too is placed, the Jung who said “I wanted God to be alive and free from the suffering man has put upon Him by loving his own reason more than God’s secret intentions.” In Catafalque space is given over to the important problem of Westerners seeking “answers” in the exotic, the oriental, the traditions of the East—pursuing a form of piracy, as Jung put it, and neglecting the vegetable gods of place itself.

Indeed place exerts an enormous pull throughout the text: in the lives of the ancients (Parmenides in Velia, at pains to avoid imperially inflated Athens, or Empedocles at Etna), in the prophetic traditions (there is a beautiful section where we hear Neoplatonists sadly lamenting the disappearance of oracles from the world even while we can see their complicity in the process of extermination), in Jung’s own life (Eranos, Küsnacht, his Bollingen tower and sacred retreat, his journey to India with the significant dream he had there, his travels to the United States), and in Kingsley’s life as well (Canada, Tunisia, New Mexico, North Carolina, Greece, England). It plainly is the case that certain creations, certain acts of expression, certain bestowals of gifts, can occur only in specific places; and that the loss of place itself, as well as its uniqueness of speech, represents the ground-zero and master-symptom of our contemporary devastation.

Catafalque also attends to the long-forgotten craft of therapeia theôn or caring for the gods that sees the only real “therapy” as lying in “the approach to the numinous”: in the care for the gods without which what today passes as therapy is, as Yeats said in Sailing to Byzantium, nothing but “a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, unless Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing for every tatter in its mortal dress.” Another significant theme is the consequence of inheriting “spiritual projects” which have been left incomplete, adrift, log-jammed through generations of dereliction and loss. Kingsley speaks of Jung’s final dying vision, which its custodian (Marie-Louise von Franz) saw fit to lock away in a drawer.

It reveals Jung’s certainty about the going down of the West: a culture and a civilization which even in 1961 had profoundly run out of any gyring or generative energy and was already quite still, poised at the point of stasis before the inevitable unwinding begins. From this, a vision unfolds of western culture as seen from the perspective of the dead: of the joining from past to future that an unbroken chain of linkages ensures, followed by the horrifying awareness of how we have lost our linkage to the primordial past—leaving us an age adrift, nowhere, bereft. The only possible response to such seeing is to lament; to turn to face our ancestors; to bury optimism as a kind of dereliction of our duty; and to learn to dance for the dead. I cannot stress starkly enough the sheer physicality of reading this book, the pain it draws forth, and not only from enduring for eight hundred pages what is unbearable to consider. There is a deeper mystery afoot and it would appear that, in the presence of words truly uttered and written, one virtually has to die to keep up one’s end of the arrangement.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this book asks everything so as to strip everything away. And as a reviewer who originally came to it with no knowledge of what it contains, I find myself urging you to be willingly burdened by the anti-matter that it is. Give it the space it most richly deserves to be read, to be struggled with, for you to be defeated by. The heart-wreckage ensuing from that many-petalled defeat is the only seedhead there is.

Keith Hackwood is a Psychosynthesis psychotherapist working in private practice in Wales, UK and online. For further information see