When I was an ardent young fascist and subjugating already impoverished people on their own ancestral lands, a Commanding Officer from HQ came to give us macho fighting lads a pep talk in the bush.
In those days and in that part of the world most people smoked but you could only buy two brands of cigarettes. Madison was for your man’s man, ‘strong and full of flavour’, Kingston was for women and Madison smokers trying to give up.
The tobacco company noticed the trend and decided to capitalise on the gender variable so they launched fags-for-girls, Berkeley.
The C.O. arrives, men at attention, eyes front. He invites us to stand easy and to smoke if we wish, producing a pink packet of Berkeley, removing the wrapper with all the curiosity of a novel occasion, oblivious to the faux pas unfolding. He lights one, coughs a bit and then delivers his spiel for as long as it takes the cigarette to burn down to clenched fingers behind his back.
It wasn’t just the social gaff, not just that we Madison guys would rather gouge out our eyes with a rusty spoon than be seen smoking Berkeley. It was his clumsy attempt at manipulation, the pretence of the man trying to be one of the lads which he assumed everyone was too stupid to see. But more than this, way more, what he actually did, despite his intention, was to suck the life and vitality out of the very group he was ostensibly there to enrich.
As he spoke, words slithering, tone masticating, hands ever hidden, I could feel something essential being drained out of me. It seemed that for the duration of this brief and otherwise unmemorable speech, all the soul consuming influences of my young life suddenly condensed about his quietly malevolent person; my deceiptful father, the toxic pedagogues of my hateful schooling, the cold calculation of imperial culture that sends its youth to their deaths for profit. By the time his Berkeley had burned down to nothing, so too, had I.
Whilst the C.O. was not playing the traditional narcissistic gambit of dumping his inferiority on us, something he reserved for the contemptuous enemy, to be in his presence was still an ennervating experience given his need to fill himself up with other people’s energy.
It took me decades to make sense of the experience…
… his covert agenda was to feed from the buoyant mood that already existed amongst the men to quell his own unacknowledged fears and insecurities.
This garnering to oneself of another’s qualities or energies is the flipside of narcissistic ‘gaslighting’. Gaslighting is when a person disowns their own behaviour or motivation by calling any attempt to point to it ‘projection’. It’s not me it’s you. What the C.O. did was the opposite, he filled up the gnawing gaps in himself with our morale.
The fact that we can be intruded on and depleted both by the Unconscious and by one another is what gives rise to the universal use of protective amulets against the ‘evil eye’. We can only understand these apotropaic objects as superstition if we fail to take into consideration the psychic fact that this kind of inter-personal robbery is a real thing.
When C. G. Jung was in Kenya he asked the headman of the village he was visiting if the people there had dreams. ‘No,’ replied the elderly African, ‘the District Commissioner has our dreams for us these days.”
We are uncomfortable with the permeability of the Psyche because it suggests us humans are a great deal less discrete from one another than we’d prefer to imagine. Our feelings of superiority depend on the conviction that consciousness is master of its own house. And yet somehow the collective imagination is still repleat with the mythologems of blood sucking vampires, brain eating zombies and witches that eat children, archetypal containers for the reality of the fact that people can get inside you and gobble you up.
You might experience it as finding it difficult to think clearly in another’s presence, knowing what to do or how to respond, or simply that you feel drained and exhausted by some apparently innocuous exchange.
The chronic form of this is the ‘negative introject’, an undigested and internalised complex of unacknowledged attitudes from significant others that got inside you as a child and made its home there, like a parasite, but one which also serves as a nucleus of identity to which a person can become attached and with which they identify..
”as though it were something precious.” F. Perls.
…despite the fact that a nasty introject can spend a life time cutting ego consciousness to pieces and gobbling down its confidence/wellbeing/autonomy from within..
This devouring aspect, can lead to a very real sense of loss of soul, as though one’s very essence had been stolen.
”If you ask a group of people, “How many of you feel you’ve lost part of your soul?” it’s typical that everybody raises their hand.” M. Harner.
To the extent that Narcissism is endemic in our society, so too is there this sense of loss of soul, and the need to go find lost or denied aspects of oneself.
In early development the ‘special’ child can’t realise at first that their elevated status is a trade off, compensation for being robbed of a unique destiny that invariably leads away from family and so..
”never gets a chance to develop his own personality, because he is so busy holding down the foreign bodies he has swallowed whole.” ibid
‘Close’ relations can sometimes be no more than that the child’s own path has simply been hobbled by co-dependant parents whose sense of self includes the attributes and qualities of their children, and thereby smothers the child’s unfolding destiny.
But sometimes its not historical. You just meet someone who has this practiced ability to drain the life out of you, your new best friend with a knack for ferreting out and spoonfeeding your deepest needs whilst plundering your inner grain store.
What to do?
There’s any amount of advice out there. My suggestion is that what’s required is a primal response, something ‘primitive’.The intellect is useless in this territory. The lost part of Soul has to be grabbed back in active imagination, acknowledged through ritual, tended in symbolic ways such that the malaise which draws our attention to that missing core, to its value, also mobilises our quest for Wholeness.
For years after I had bought myself out of the military I had a repeating dream of truncated men, men with limbs missing, ripped torsos, agonizingly incomplete. Throughout these scenes the recurring image of a deep, dark, menacing pool. No amount of interpretation seemed to hit the mark.
I decided on a radicle course of action. I knew of such a pool in a dark wood, so I went there one winter’s evening with the intention of spending the night, to see what happened. It was freezing. I walked around the pond endlessly trying to keep warm. A spontaneous phantasy arose in my mind that my ‘treasure’ lay at the bottom and that it was guarded by a troll like the one from the story of Billy Goat Gruff. It felt important and I paid attention to it. He had a lot to say for himself and so had I. We argued back and forth most of the night. Eventually he said, ‘well, if you want it back you have to come and get it.’
Dawn. There were patchy sheets of ice on the pond. I stripped off and waded in.
On the way back home, having ran the four miles back to the train station to get warm, I realised I had slept fitfully at some point in the night, curled up in the roots of a great Oak to take shelter from the wind. While I slept I had dreamt.
”Paying the Unconscious tribute more or less guarentees its co-operation.” C. G. Jung
I was visiting a ‘half-way house’ for damaged and handicapped men. There was a great party going on. Their wits had returned and they had all grown dense and luxurious beards. Then they gathered around the pond and pulled out a wealth of fish. A grand old man appeared on a white horse and magically drained away the dark water. I went over to him, seeming to recognise him. I shouted in delight, ‘I am your grandson!’ He looked at me with infinitely compassionate and twinkling blue eyes, reached down his hand to me and said,’ Of course you are.’