I was once locked up in a Zambian jail for an irregularity in my passport, a stinking cell where three African brothers offered to share their single blanket and the newspaper sheets that served as their bed. I didn’t sleep a wink and as dawn broke I noticed a fourth man sitting apart from us. He had been utterly silent the whole night, curled into an upright foetal ball and balanced on his feet to avoid the cold floor. It was a posture that had the print of long practice stamped upon it.
I asked the others about him. In sufficient broken English to make himself understood one of the brothers explained to me that he had been here for many years. He tapped his temple meaningfully.
Every day a family member dropped off a bag of peanuts and an orange for him at the charge desk. He received no visitors. No-one spoke to him. Even the brothers seemed to shun him. Over the several days that it took to negotiate my freedom I watched him carefully.
Initially I was afraid. After a while I got curious. He said nothing and rarely moved except to sun himself in the open corridor for the few hours of every day we were allowed out of our cell.
He’d perch himself in a corner, trousers rolled up, with his legs dangling out of the bars that ran down one side of the corridor. There he would meticulously shell his peanuts and build a perfect cone of the empty husks. He would attend to this in great detail, balancing each shell with great care.
If any shell tumbled down he’d retrieve and replace it with quiet urgency until the cone was complete. Then he would peel his orange. Each rind was used to decorate and surround the cone. Every last scrap of white pith was removed with infinite delicacy and used to crown his creation. Then he’d break open the orange with all the seriousness and ceremony of a priest presiding over communion.
Each segment was savoured as if it was ambrosia. Deep pleasure and contentment etched his face as he lingered over every last morsel. When he was finished he leant his entire body against the bars of the prison in exhausted gratitude for several minutes before extracting an astonishingly clean handkerchief from an inner recess of his otherwise filthy clothes and carefully wiped the corners of his mouth. His sacrament was complete.
On the third day, I was pacing up and down impatiently, waiting for word of my release. As I passed him he looked up at me with infinite kindness in his face and asked in impeccable English, ‘ Would you like a piece of my orange, Sir?’’
How was it possible? This poor wretch had been imprisoned without charge in a filthy, stinking jail and yet he could still create his artistic cones and offer me some of his meagre rations with a loving smile! I was delighted but confused and humbled. He had evidently found something in his inner world to sustain him, something it would take me decades to discover myself.
Whilst we were all locked up for the remainder of the day I talked with the three brothers. The heat and stink was so great that we had to lay down on the floor to avoid it, noses to the crack under the door where a little fresh air blew in. We told stories to while away the hours. The one I remember best was a folk tale from that part of the world about a magic anthill, which the oldest brother told with theatrical embellishment, urged on and liberally corrected by the other two.
It concerned a young woman, Umushamwise, who refused all her father’s suggestions of marriage. One day as she was collecting water by the river a handsome stranger approached her. He was wounded and asked her to take him to her father’s house where he might rest and mend. She looked after him and gradually they fell in love.
The two were married and the young woman went with her new husband to his far off village as was the custom. Her younger sister was unhappy about this. She didn’t trust the handsome stanger and so she followed them, showing herself finally after the long journey.
Umushamwise was furious, especially whern she learned her reasons, but she was allowed to stay for the time being. Every day the husband went off and always returned with fresh meat. The young sister’s suspicions grew. One day she snuck after him and was shocked to see him climb up an anthill…
”find me fresh meat,’ he commanded.
The anthill magically took off across the open bush in pursuit of game. Even more amazingly the husband became transformed into a huge lion which easily pounced on his quarry.
The young sister rushed back and told Umushamwise the story but she didn’t believe her, scolding her for jealousy. That night the frightened youngster couldn’t sleep and so she was awake to hear the soft padding of great paws outside their hut in the graveyard hours. The lion/husband pushed the door open and was about to devour his bride when the girl let out a warning yell.
”What’s the matter?” asked the husband quickly resuming his human form.
‘Nothing, I just have a stone in my bed.’
Come morning she told Umushamwise what happened. Again she scolded her young sister, so the next night the resourceful youngster tied a thread to her older sister’s finger and when the lion/husband came in she tugged on it and Umushamwise woke up. Her screams chased the lion/husband away and they both fled into the night.
”What shall we do?” cried Umushamwise.
”I know”, said the girl and he rushed over to the magic anthill. ”Carry us home,” she commanded. And so the anthill took off leaving the lion/husband roaming the bush forever in search of them.
Over the years I have reflected upon how this story so well described how the other prisoner in our midst that day could maintain such dignity and how poetically it used cultural symbols to pinpoint the dangers of the creative process.
In order to live creatively we must metaphorically leave home. Consciousness has to be greater than the product of mere collective ideals represented by Umushamwise’ father’s choice of suitors. She chooses the wounded stranger, the unknown inner man, the’ suffering servant’ which initiates consciousness on the path of individuation.
The creative possibility is now a real prospect though full of trepidation personified by the fretful young sister who fears for the heroine’s safety since ego consciousness is fragile and easily overwhelmed by the Unconscious.
The ambiguous nature of our creative impulses soon appears as the shapeshifting lion/husband who comes stealing into the hut at night.
”The sacred marriage is both desired and dreaded. From a distance it is the source of all yearning. But knocking at the door it is an object of terror.” E. Edinger.
Umushamwise is understandably reluctant to realise what she has let herself in for..
”Pray you never step upon the path, for once there you cannot get off.”Zen proverb.
Drawing upon the wellsprings of creativity deep in the Unconscious is a risky business and she has to become allies with her dark sister, her shadow, that follows her and tells her what she doesn’t want to hear in order to get out in one piece.
This encounter with the devouring aspect of the Unconscious personified by the lion/husband is a necessary precursor to the realisation of the creative self symbolised by the dynamic anthill. Ethologist Eugene Marais’ brilliant work, ‘the Soul of the White Ant’, observes that the Anthill is a single organism. As such it is, like the Self, unity in multiplicity, a paradox that requires the sisters be singing from the same hymn sheet in order not to be dismembered.
When threatened by unconscious forces…
”there is still something which can rescue one. The unconscious is not only chaos but also order…’ ML von Franz.
Speaking of the role played by the ants as agents of the Self in the story of Psyche and Eros von Franz says..
”The ants have mysterious unexplored qualities, they just collaborate.” ibid
but only in the wake of a brush with death.
Creativity is not the same as making things. It is not even a precondition for it.
We confine creativity..
‘’to certain conventional areas of human endeavour, unconsciously assuming that any painter, any poet, any composer, was leading a creative life.’’Maslow
It is not so. Nor is it so that anyone deprived of paint, clay, wood or ink cannot be creative.
The problem is that..
‘’he who begats something which is alive must dive down into the primeval depths in which the forces of life dwell. And when he rises to the surface there is a gleam of madness in his eyes because in those depths life lives cheek by jowl with death’’. W. Otto.
Creating is akin to dying.
‘’As often as life engenders itself anew, the wall which separates itself from death is momentarily destroyed.’’ (ibid).
The outer world is equally unforgiving. Creative people are invariably sanctioned for their pains, sometimes killed or imprisoned for their vision whether they be playing on the world stage like Ghandi, Kennedy and Mandela or like the nameless sage in an isolated jail who offered me some of his orange.
If we are to remain truly creative we have to refrain from certainty and the illusion of ‘knowing’. Creativity requires the kind of tension between opposites that threaten to pull us apart like wild horses.
Creativity demands internal diversity, but identity depends upon our inner landscapes remaining fairly static. To be clear about who I am means to be one thing or another. To be neither is just a big mess, not to mention the brush with death that constitutes that first crack opening up between consciousness and its contents.
The creative moment requires a letting go of the dominant way of knowing ourselves. It is “the ‘sacrificium’ ,
“Where everything is neither thinking, nor feeling, nor sensation, nor intuition. Something new comes up, a completely different and new attitude towards life.” von Franz.
And so, when you feel ‘stuck’, or have some frustrating creative block, you would do well to remind yourself that the lion/husband is breathing down your neck and that what will save the day is not more effort on your part but the shadow sister tugging on your finger.