ψυχή / psyche / soul
The Greek word for “soul” is “psyche” (ψυχή).
Soul is who we really are; the part that’s eternal, yet ephemeral and intangible. But in modern Western culture, we associate who we are with the material and corporeal, and the English word “psyche” refers to the mind. Freud described the psyche as containing the ego, superego, and id: the trappings of consciousness that tell us we’re separate from other living things, and that we have a finite end, upon which we endlessly ruminate. These parts of us can become monstrous, keeping us stuck in our own small worlds and fixated upon consensus conceptions of time, matter, and reality.
Jung, for his part, called the psyche an internal system that balances opposing tensions, including the individual and collective. I’m no great proponent of either Freud or Jung, frankly, but find I some truth in this latter observation. To me, the soul is our unique energy signature, the thread that weaves us into the larger metaphysical tapestry—but it’s also an expression of oneness, joining us to the unitive force of Awareness within which all things unfold.
Psyche is also a goddess in the Greek pantheon, and the myth of her relationship with Cupid is a metaphor for the journey of the soul as guided by love. I am currently stationed in Athens, and just southeast of here, on the Cycladic Islands, thousands of mysterious marble figurines have been found of serene females in canonical pose: arms folded over the waist, standing on tiptoe, a pose that denotes both death and guardianship. These beings are said to help shepherd souls to the next phase, because hidden on these islands amongst bleached white and crystal blue is one of the three gates to the Underworld.
In making the transition from one stage of life to the next, “you're going to need a woman to help you along,” said a tour guide with a lilting Mediterranean accent as I eavesdropped at the Museum of Cycladic Art. Certainly, this has been the role of the feminine throughout history, and especially in Greece, where earth-centered movements honoring goddesses and led by female priestesses drove spiritual traditions for thousands of years. Even in the smoke-filled, graffitied Athenian metropolis, there are the echoes of these ecstatic rituals connecting earthly life with what’s beyond, which moved from the hills and forests to the public space before being driven underground. But always, the goal remained the same: to connect, to merge, to make a greater whole.
“The Greeks worship outdoors,” the tour guide added, “because everything relates to nature.”
As in the ancient Agora, Greek life still centers around the public square. I was last here in the fall of 2019, and the pandemic has done little to alter the visual landscape. It all happens outside: talking, laughing, arguing, expressing, guzzling coffee, sipping beer, breaking bread. People spill into the street from the multipurpose spaces that morph from cafés to restaurants and bars as the hours progress. There is a constant conversation of car horns; those had between neighbors hanging out of windows or stopped on corners; families with young children bouncing behind at near-midnight on a Tuesday.
Being here, surrounded by so much vivaciousness yet only understanding bits and pieces of conversation (despite my ongoing attempts to learn the language), unable to fully enter in, like a kid with my nose pressed against the window of a candy store, I have realized how desperately I long for connection. Like many of us, I spent the past year and a half locked in my studio apartment, consuming and regurgitation information at a frenetic pace. I learned and grew so much over quarantine, and opened myself to exciting new life paths, but I also became aware that since long before lockdown, I hadn't really been living. I was all thinking, no feeling, trying to tell the human story without actually experiencing it. No wonder I’ve been creatively blocked.
But where words fail, art fills the space, and at the Goulandris Museum in Pagrati, the neighborhood of Athens where I'm staying, I found a tiny cluster of works by Van Gogh and Gaughin. I've always felt an affinity with them, the quintessential tortured artists, their perpetual attempts to express all that’s beyond ordinary perception meeting resistance and rejection. There’s a fine line between madness and awakening, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. I melted into their glittering, iridescent oils and acrylics, thick layers cresting from the canvas like waves, pastoral scenes charged with meaning, vivid and visceral. I could feel the colors, the depth, the textures, permeating to the core of my being.
The crushing beauty of Van Gogh’s olive groves cast in dusky twilight (or was it dawn?) moved me to tears; bucolic imagery applied with frenetic brush strokes in a Parisian sanitarium. They locked him away because they didn’t understand. The leaves and bark and grass and sky, more alive than the people in the frame, the atmosphere itself portrayed in particles and waves. The public initially perceived Impressionist paintings as unrealistic, but actually, they were hyperreal, illuminating the breathing, vibrating, multidimensional world that humans at baseline simply can’t perceive.
According to the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, people see the world in a “blurred view.” Our mental, physical, and emotional equipment is not capable of perceiving the fine detail of existence as it actually is; we don’t have the tools to observe and measure the events and possibilities of space and time at the quantum level. With ordinary vision, we cannot see the extradimensional layers on top of consensus reality. It is only through altering standard perception in some way (and now this is me, not Rovelli, talking) that we can begin to grasp the fractal nature of the universe, the vibrating particles that make the air and earth and all that moves above and below and within it. Van Gogh’s work is a revelation of quantum interdimensionality centuries before its time.
The Impressionists conveyed the blurred view so clearly. Get too close, and it’s dots and lines and swirls, indistinguishable particles, but zoom out, and you see that it’s all part of a larger system, each smear and color and globule interconnected. Only then does hazy vision become clear.
The problem isn’t the picture, it’s the frame. After all, as Dr. Gabor Mate days, how much of what we see as mental illness is a rational reaction to living in an insane culture?
As I melted into these paintings, I felt the shell that had formed through years around my vital organ begin to crack. I wanted to climb into my mother’s lap and sob with my face buried in her blouse; to smell the leaves in Van Gogh’s ochre and amber landscape, crisp earth mixed with the fires of early fall; to gaze across the table at another person and feel my guts churn; to run through a tree-lined forest and roll in the sand; to breath smoke and feel heat. I felt the artists’ presence all around me and the comfort of their kinship, overcome with both a longing for connection and the sensation that I’ve never been separate.
I want to live, but the tentacles of the same monster that dragged Van Gogh and Gaughin into the depths have been wrapped around my ankles, pulling me endlessly into the cycle of production and performance, which is part of why I'm here. Nowhere is the illusory nature of time and space more apparent than in international travel, and Greece is one of those places where schedules are just a suggestion. I want to burn the calendar and break the clock, and I feel like maybe I can do that at this point in my healing and in this place. After all, life is just a series of interrelated events that propel the universe along in its journey of increasing entropy; we perceive this as moving forward in time, but is really, as T.S. Eliot said, “neither toward nor away.” I want to find what he described as “the still point in this turning world,” where I can stop running, making, doing, and simply be.
But the Western world isn't set up for that, with its focus on personal achievement. The rise of the individual in art coincided with the collapse of the ancient world, and that's no coincidence. As Alexander the Great embarked upon his early globalization campaign, the Roman empire slowly asphyxiated the soul: the earth-centered, female-focused, collective-oriented “paganism” that had marked humanity since time immemorial. The rulers sought to replace the gods, immortalizing themselves in portraiture and sculpture. The mystery schools and Dionysian rites literally became theater; transcendent rituals were reduced to dramatic performance as organized religions took their place. The society that would become the capitalist, global West began to form, and separation culture set in. Roman sculpture and portraiture with busts of leaders and idealized figures represented the veneration of the individual over the group, and thousands of years later, art critics were telling the Impressionists their work wasn't realistic enough.
But you can still find the mystical everywhere, if you only know where to look. The Yellow House where Van Gogh poured forth his soul upon the cloth is a metaphysical place that you can visit anytime. It can transport you to the French countryside or the gritty streets of humanity’s sprawling cities, and you can find equal beauty and pain in either setting.
So what is ideal, and what is real? What is hyper-granular vision, and what is a blurred view? Perhaps there are no answers to these questions, but the only way to find out is to feel; to let the color and sound and texture wash over you. To open the door, and walk outside.
In Greek, the word “psyche” also means “butterfly,” and in folk traditions, that’s how the soul is depicted: a winged creature, emerging from confinement to flutter outward and upward, carried on the same breeze that lifts the lyrical language of the people gathered in the public square.