Tag Archives: death

The Unconscious and the Island: Fragments of Research on the Self



Sometimes the ideas and insights, the feelings and emotions are born by a new and abnormal element, as a disturbance.

Among these, the word “emotion” shares the root with another word just as beautiful: it is the word “movement”.

I believe that life is often dotted and crossed by emotions and movements. Emotions are our emotions, are those shared with patients in the consulting room, with people important to us, through meetings with new faces and eyes. The movements, however, we can roughly categorize into two types: there are transverse movements, the ones that make us change jobs, make us change clothes or change cities. There are, then, the longitudinal movements, that make us be born, grow, learn, grow old, get sick, heal, die and, maybe, even reborn.

Through symbols and metaphors, but also through concrete facts, whether physical or psychological, in this article we will try to put through words the Journey of the person who, at some point in her life, feels that the land on which she lived with more or less security, the conscious, the consciousness, is only a small part, the surface of something much deeper, more complex, more unknown, but also, we believe, more fascinating, as it enables us, or forces us, to contact, to confront our most hidden parts, our Shadows.

One of the “key” inputs used in this article comes from the famous novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, written by Jules Verne in 1864; extracting from the plot components metaphorically more akin to philosophy, analytical psychology, but also to mythology, alchemy, etc., the most poignant and emerging psychic traits are two places, two physical moments in the work of the French writer, geographically very distant but geologically and psychically very next between them; two Volcanoes: the Icelandic Sneffels and the Italian Stromboli. From Sneffels, in fact, the three protagonists of Verne’s “Journey” had immersed themselves into the bowels of the Earth and, after many adventures and surprising discoveries, risen to the surface of the Planet through the chimney of Stromboli, which is a volcanic island, part of the archipelago of the Aeolian Islands, located near the northern coast of Sicily. Stromboli is a volcano whose explosive activity has been almost uninterrupted for about two thousand years.

At this point, for Italians is appropriate, even essential, a slight digression: Mediterranean people and Icelanders have a problem, or perhaps a greater opportunity than other peoples; occasionally, the underground, the unconscious, is felt, it makes its incessant restlessness manifest itself in the form of earthquakes, active volcanoes, or emerging and disappearing islands, and as we delude ourselves that our Being, our existence, is ended in the horizontality of the surface, something, at some point, makes us feel and discover the vertical dimension, which is no longer directed only upwards, towards Heaven, but is also directed towards the core of our Being, too. On this point, American psychoanalyst James Hillman spoke about a “feeling that there’s a reason why my person, which is unique and unrepeatable, is in the world, and that there are things that I have to devote beyond the daily life and at the daily life give its raison of existence (…)”.

Translating what has been written so far, the analytical path can be succinctly so symbolized: there is a moment in our life path in which we feel the need to understand and discover what lies beneath the surface of our daily and horizontal existence. This is, in the terminology of Carl Gustav Jung’s analytical psychology, the process of individuation, which was understood and sought already by alchemists long before modern psychoanalysis.

The central philosophical idea of alchemy claims that the first stage of the inner journey is the one in which the forces abandon the individual – the stage of decomposition, in Latin nigredo, in which there is a movement from an identified to a non-identified state; we can say that in this first step the ego offers himself to an initiatory death.

This stage is followed by one in which the individual, directed to the center of the earth, i.e. at the center of the Self, finds the roots of his own subjectivity: this is the albedo phase, without corporeality, full of its emptiness, according to the alchemists; at this stage the individual, although being a filled and present object, tests the paradoxical experiences of absence and emptiness. Just by facing and overcoming this stage, the human being can move up to a renewed light, towards individuation. This is the stage of rubedo, in which there is the materialization of the Spirit.

Similarly to the alchemists, Rabbi Dov Ber (or otherwise written Dov Baer), the main propagator of Hasidism, a current of Judaism founded in the eighteenth century, argued: “We have to think about ourselves as nothing, forgetting ourselves“, meaning that each thing, every thought, in order to transform itself, must venture into nothingness, renouncing itself; only by denying ourselves and annihilating ourselves we can transcend time: “He who arrives at the threshold of nothing, forget his own person and obtains a natural mind“.

The individual adult, the mature person, or at least the one that aims to become one (it’s never too late!), should prepare herself for the meeting with their dark spots, by means of comparison with their own Shadows (Greek ????, Latin umbra, Italian ombra), so as to begin the process of individuation. Consciousness, moreover, that constitutes our daily life, needs its counterpart, the unconscious, and one component cannot be separated from its counterpart, as though adhering to a universal law: Light and Darkness, Day and Night, Full and Empty, Male and Female, Good and Evil …

Contenting himself with living exclusively in the light of the sun, ignoring and disclaiming our less brilliant parts, exposes us to the risk of an incomplete existence, devoid of our more nuclear members, more genuine and more intimate, which, if not recognized and integrated into our lives, are likely to turn against us. Accomplishing this path requires a good deal of courage. C. G. Jung wrote: “Whoever goes towards oneself risks meeting with himself. The mirror does not flatter; it shows faithfully the one which is reflected in it, and that is the face that is never exposed to the world, for we veil it by means of the Person, the mask of the actor. But behind the mask there is the mirror from which the true face shines. This is the first test of courage to face on the inner way, a test just to deter, scared, most people. The encounter with oneself is indeed one of the most unpleasant experiences, from which we escape by projecting all that is negative onto the world around us. He who is in a position to see his Shadow and bear the knowledge has already completed a small part of the task: the personal unconscious has just emerged to the surface“.

Accepting our own Shadow, recognizing the personal unconscious, means dealing with the sense of one’s own limitations and taboos; we believe this to be the paradigmatic aspect of the work of the analyst: the couple patient/analyst, their differentiation of roles, expectations, skills, desires, needs, etc.; this acceptance determines us to face the uncertainty of the limit, peras in Greek, which is a psychic place about which man has asked over the centuries many questions, yet finding no clear and definitive answers. Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, defines the limit as the extreme end of all things, beyond which there is nothing of the thing, and on this side of which the whole thing stands.
According to Homer, “over” is the place where psyché lies when man abandons it, if he loses consciousness or dies: it [psyché], breathed its last breath, it reaches Hades, which is the place of the non-visible (Á-ides), where it will dwell as a vain shadow, in a state of overwhelming sadness.

The religious feeling, before being directed towards Heaven, elected its specific region in the underground, the lower world, from which flowed life and where the man returned after death, in search of the con-centration, memory and ecstasy: “Men die because they are not able to join the beginning with the end“. It has psychic consistency, then, to realize that the primitive mythology devotes so much attention to those more disruptive geological phenomena and more related to the subsoil, such as earthquakes and volcanic events, which aroused (and still create) terror and wonder that are basic elements of the sacrum and the supernatural. The supernatural, if it is ever universally recognized in the mountains, it is even more so if it comes from volcanoes. If the gods inhabit the peaks of the mountains, in the case of volcanoes their home is inside, that’s why the crater is considered the entrance to the other world, the passage from which to reach the Center where “(…) Archeus resides, the “servant of nature”, that Paracelsus also called Volcano, identifying it with the Adech, i.e. with the “great Man“.

In the mythology of the Mediterranean regions the Sicilian volcano Mount Etna, the largest in Europe, is the forge of Hephaestus, whereas for the Romans it is on Vulcano island (also belonging to the archipelago of the Aeolian Islands) that God forged thunderbolts for Jupiter and weapons for Mars. It is from the late Middle Ages that the word “volcano” has spread all over the planet to name the mountains made by fire. To finish this brief digression about the mythology of the Volcanoes, according to legend, Athena would force Enceladus (meaning “restrained voice”, “interior scream”) below the slopes of Mt. Etna, while another myth speaks about Zeus, who casts Mt. Etna against the monstrous Typhon, burying it, though some variations of the myth say that Typhon would be under the whole Sicily and, according to Pindar and Aeschylus, the area involved would be the entire volcanic Tyrrhenian region included from Etna to the Ischia island (located opposite the city of Naples), and this would explain, at least in terms of mythology, the correlation between the phenomena of Stromboli and Etna, which is flatly denied by geologists, whilst volcanologists have just recently expressed a symptomatic yes and no (e.g. Fumiciello R. & Billi A., 2003. “Etna e Isole Eolie: casualità o eventi connessi?” Sicurezza Civile, 3:8-11).

There are some phenomena, some psychic objects with which, during our lives, we are confronted almost daily and that, with their symbolic and archetypal mark and structure our way of life, we refer to; for example, darkness: it, when we are children, arouses our fears, our sense of vulnerability, but it contains as well an unspeakable, seductive value. It is in the darkness of the underground, in the unconscious, that we seek our less visible parts; sometimes they are, perhaps, less glorious and bright, they are our shadows, but they are that part of ours that is closest to the core of our Self, in which those components reside, sometimes surprising us, silently and subtly guiding our choices, our meetings, our fears, our desires, our work, our being-in-the-world; and here in the morning, awakening, a dream, just a stupid dream, predisposes us to a good mood or a bad mood or to looking for the lottery! It is not recent history, however: in ancient Greece there were some priests, followers of Asclepius (deity to whom was consecrated the science of medicine), who interpreted the dreams of people: the nightmares (incubi, in Italian), creating the so-called practice of incubation. The word comes from in-cubus, since the sleepers, after some rites of ablution and therefore “clean”, lay down on square stones at the center of temples dedicated to Aesculapius, in its Latin form. When they wake up, they must tell the dreams to the priests, so that they can interpret them, so as to give directions to the person or sometimes to the whole community. For the Romans, the incubus was a spirit responsible for the safekeeping of valuable assets buried under the ground, while in the Middle Ages the incubus assumed the guise of a monstrous spirit that surprised the women at night, oppressing their chest with his weight or abusing them. The square stone, therefore, had a significant and catalyst function.

The descent into the darkness of the underground, in the realm of the Dream, the unconscious, leads us to a place devoid of psychic temporality, comparable to what the alchemists called vas bene clausum or vas hermeticum, i.e. an isolated system and hermetically closed so as to protect the good and growing part of the living world and the psyche. Devoid of sunlight, conventions and social rhythms, any notion of time can be dilated to excess or be reduced to a quantity point.

Continuing with geometric symbolism, the search of the archetype of the Center is a primordial need for man because the point, along with the circle and the sphere, is a “natural” figure.

The first image that the child conceives about itself is a round image. The figure of the circle is rooted deeply in the mind because it regards the first mental learning tension of the bodily self and its borders. As soon as the child is able to draw on the paper a sign that goes beyond the simple doodle, the first creative expression that performs the baby is a circle and this is the result of a long, evolutionary internal and autobiographical process. To approximate to the core of the individual, we must do it so in a “naive” (ingenuo in Italian) way, that is to say so natural and free (from the Latin ingèenus, which indicated those who were born in the same place where they lived and that had therefore certain birth, unlike the slaves). To search for the Self so naively means to predispose oneself to an inner journey without intellectual superstructure, in which the natural component is higher than the cultural one; and the reason is simple: reason has the need to objectify at any cost, so as to put a separation between self and other-than-self, between the observer and the observed. In order for it to discover and know one’s Self, however, we must “be Self”.

Marius Schneider wrote in Kosmogonie: “in “normal” consciousness nature and human consciousness are not related, but as it is in man a more intimate conscience is forming, the world reveals the deep awareness as a supra-individual unit, in which man and nature live together and are intrinsically fused. Because man can experience the structure of the universe only in himself, he decides its structure from the essence of nature“.

Descent into Darkness exposes the abandonment of certain habits, certain rules and certain “safety” structures guaranteed by the Light of the surface, i.e. by the consciousness and the “concreteness” of the earth on which we live.

Venturing in the Dark, in the region of the unconscious, is similar to offering oneself a new perspective, a new “possibility of existence” or, in religious terms, a new grace; but this trip, this waiver, albeit transient, of solar Light, has inherent the risk of loss of control and the con-fusion of the limit: madness. This is a fundamental point in psychotherapy, because it repeats the essential theme of balance and aid that the therapist must offer to the patient so that he, the symbolic Being and as such a mediator between the earth and the sky, can find his own way, with prudence but also with courage, i.e. the necessary courage to overcome a particular impasse, the likely cause of illness or disorder.

The encounter between the patient and the therapist is like a contest in which the apparent balance between the ones is broken by the patient’s demand. The dynamic that occurs is similar to the contention of judo; the word “judo” is formed by the JU ideogram, which can be translated as “soft”; the character “DO” represents the student accompanied by the teacher, but philosophically it is translated as “path” or “way of improvement”. Judo, therefore, expresses the “way of gentleness”. The student, the patient, addresses the question, the “problem”, to the therapist, the “master”, who is waiting for the “attack”, expects the “disturbance”, the “noise”. The therapist is not opposed to the attack, but he welcomes it and supports it, leading it to the logical conclusion and freeing the patient from that which is most likely a false social assumption, namely the risk of alienating the person from one’s Self.

What envelops and confuses man are, often, the rules and social demands that often conflict with the feelings and individual instances. We believe that the task of the therapist is to permit reconciliation between the dictates coming from society and the search for identification, thus safeguarding the integrity of the person. An aphorism says that a good doctor is one who entertains the patient while nature cures him.

Resuming the thread of the metaphor which we used before, i.e. Verne’s novel: the Journey begins and ends on two volcanic islands, the cold Iceland of Sneffels and the hot Stromboli. The island, psychologically, is an extra-worldly environment, surrounded by the incessant restlessness of the liquid element that wraps and surrounds it, whilst for being able to reach the island it is necessary to deal with the water, which can be unpredictable and dangerous. It is impossible to come onto the island accidentally, because the island is an “exact” goal, the island is genius loci: the landing on the island is allowed to those who accept the risk or have the talent to get there, as long as they do not fall into hybris, arrogance: in alchemical terms, the access onto the island is allowed to those who are in the grace of God, because the Island is a témenos. The sacredness of the island, especially if it is volcanic, sanctifies the person that docks unharmed.

To dock on an island means abandoning a protected place to rely upon the sea-utero that surrounds and contains, on which, usually about the summit, there is a crater, the omphalos (ombelico in Italian), a term which in antiquity, as well as ‘navel’, distinguished a certain stone to which was attributed religious significance.

At the beginning of this text, we made a brief mention about the emergence and submergence of islands, about lands standing in the sea; we have, in the Mediterranean Sea, a very close and geologically recent example: Ferdinandea Island, off the coast of Sciacca (close to city of Agrigento), a little town located on the southern coast of Sicily, whose last emergence and disappearance is documented in 1831. The emergence of an island needs the participation of a fundamental key, it needs Fire, for it is by the combined action between the water and fire that the island can materialize itself, whose persistence in the superficial and aerial region and whose resistance, however, depends on the firmness of the bonds that must persist within the game of opposing forces exerted by the Wind, then from Air, and especially by the disruptive action of the sea-unconscious.

The geometric figure which can be associated with fire is the pyramid; Plato argued that the element of fire is marked by pyramids and that of all the solid figures contained the proper signs of fire, being their shape extremely pointed and with a minimum of a base; in addition, it seems certain that if a dead organic body is placed in a particular point inside the pyramid, which has precise proportions, the process of putrefaction freezes, allowing mummification, as if the fire inside of the pyramid could burn its temperaments (moods). In the pyramid there are just two specific principles including gender, i.e. the female, the four, the base, which mark the horizontality, i.e. the earth, the acceptance, complementary to the principle of three, i.e. the male, vertical, penetrating like a mountain. The uneven numbers, in the West and in the East, have always symbolized the male, while the even numbers recall the female: if we look at the Christian-Catholic dogma, the Trinity has male characteristics, apart from some rare interpretations, and just with the accession of the Virgin, sanctioned in 1950, and the subsequent formation of the Quaternary, the Trinity also includes a female component.

The Heart, thanks to the combined action of Water, Fire and Air, which was previously localized in the chthonic regions of Dream, erupts at the superficial region of awareness, changing its status from a magmatic, undifferentiated condition, to the solidity of the consistency of the lava emerged, materializing the island and, psychologically, making clear the conscience.

The emerging volcano-island, then, is the Self manifesting itself and that is opposed to what the psychoanalyst Erich Neumann called “psychic gravitation”, which is the centripetal tendency of the ego to return to the original unconscious psychic dislocation, and it is what happens to the Ferdinandea Island, which, failing to develop and strengthen the bonds necessary for its survival out of the water, is broken up and re-assimilated into the subterranean regions, the analogue of the unconscious.
The fire, along with water, comprises one of the most ancient and universal human symbols. In the cross itself, the horizontal line represents the water, the female principle, namely the surface, the descent and the depth, because the water penetrates by gravity through the rock; the vertical arm, however, is the masculine principle, namely fire, connected to rising, height and concentration. It is in the cross that the maximum energy concentrates, in the intersection of the two arms, that is, the punctum indivisibile (indivisible point), from which everything emanates and to which everything returns. Any attempt of separation or categorization leads us to the Centre, in this indivisible point where opposites, joining, coincide and form the identity. It is from the Centre, too, that the movement originates, symbolized by Man through the cross, with one of the oldest symbols of the graphic Indo-European culture, the swastika, an eastern representation of the solar disk, whose word seems to derive from an ancient Sanskrit formula of blessing, su asti, and this is the core of the mandala, the nature and origin of which cannot be treated in this article.

The volcano and the crater represent the sensitive point, the place of rupture, the portal through which the passage can take place, the communication between the underground, the unconscious, and the emerged regions, the consciousness. The crater, the summit or mouth of volcanoes, is the entrance gate to the kingdom of Hades and it is a place of transformation, of rebirth and enlightenment; to support the symbolism associated with the crater, we can connect to the sacrificial cup, that embodies the symbol of “Center of the World” or “Heart of the World”, in which the immortality elects his home. If we move from the ground up, we find that due to the peculiarities that Mercury has over other gods, he is the only god that is allowed to carry the souls in the opposite direction, taking them to Hades.

If we want to remain in the theme of Heaven, instead, an important astronomical discovery happened at Plato’s time. The planets – the Greek word meaning “wandering star” – had always been considered the celestial bodies that, unlike the others, wandered aimlessly. But a member of the Platonic Academy, Philip from Opunte, observed that the planets moved around the Earth with regular revolutions. Law and order ruled in the sky. An unprovable hypothesis was formulated, which nevertheless seemed convincing: the stars were animated and traveling along regular orbits by the will and judgment just because they were “visible gods“. In Timaeus, and likewise in the Phaedrus, Plato put his theory of the soul in relation with the stars: the soul comes from the heaven of the fixed stars, from the sphere of eternal things; from there it falls into that of changing things, until it comes to Earth, enters a body, from which it is delivered after death, in order to ascend again to the immortal stars.

In this short passage begins to emerge this “need” of man, already testified inter alia by Heraclitus (“the way up and the way down are one and the same“), to find a continuity, a junction between the underground, the Earth and Heaven. Many peoples, including Persians, believed that the sky was made of stone and they used the same term for the concepts of “heaven” and “stone”: Asman. There is a Greek word, akmon, which has the same origin and means both “heaven” as “anvil stone”. The fragments of the meteor falling to Earth led the first men to believe that the sky was made of stone. That’s why the ancient men imagined the universe as a giant cave and, consequently, the caves in which the followers of Mithra met to perform their rites, for example,, were regarded as reproductions of the cosmos.

At this point, we hypothesize that Journey to the Center of the Earth represents Man’s desire to return to the original and primordial center; in alchemical literature it is defined as “regressus ad uterum” (return to the womb), and the three explorers of Journey to the Center of the Earth will find a sea-utero at the end of their underground journey.

Jung writes: “In the myth of the hero, the purpose of the descent is universally characterized by the fact that in the danger zone (deep water, cave, forest, island, rock etc.) there is the ‘treasure hard to reach’ (jewel, virgin, elixir of life, victory over death etc.). The fear and resistance that every natural man feels when digging too deeply into himself, are ultimately the fear of the journey to Hades. If we try just resistance, the thing would not be so serious. In reality, however, from that psychic background, so just from that dark space, unknown, exudes an attraction, a fascination, which threatens to become even more overwhelming the deeper one penetrates in it“.

The vas (vase in English, vaso in Italian), the antrum formed by the crater from which you can access to Chthon, however, is also a cave; the cave, like all the archetypal objects, is naturally ambivalent: it is a place of change, and the change takes place as withdrawn, precluded at the uninitiated and protected from external light. It is a place of burial, which marks the end of life, but it is also a place of initiation and birth (in a cave or a grotto were born Jesus, Zeus and Mithra, and we can also remember the adventure of Jonah).

Now let’s try to do a little exercise chart: the overlap between the graphic representation of the cave and the mountain is the shaped of the symbol called the “Seal of Solomon”, whose figure, full of several symbolic references, condenses the meaning of the macrocosm: the triangle with the point at the top, which is a symbol for Aria and Fire, is the male principle; the one with the tip down, a symbol for Water and Earth, is the female principle. The hexagram thus formed and circumscribed form the Divine Principle, the androgynous being, the perfect balance. We find a drift into this principle in botany, where there exists a plant, the convallaria polygonatum, called “Seal of Solomon”, whose roots are used in white magic, placed at the four corners to protect the house from any evil influence.

Beyond the direct will of the grapple in the discovery of the unconscious, we believe that it is necessary to accommodate this sort of “gravitational captivation”, living it as an opportunity, rather than to suffer it: the opportunity to discover and re-acquaint oneself, making use of the image that not by chance we can associate with the concept of “idea”, inasmuch as “idea” and “image” have the same etymological origin, eidos and Eideo, which in Greek means “to see“. Hence also the Latin word “video” and the Greek word eidolon, idol, which means “image” too.

The most frequently proposed or celebrated appearance of what is defined as “postmodern condition” is its reliance upon the superficial image. In contemporary culture, we are surrounded by a fast flow of images that pile up in a succession of news, advertising and TV series in which it is no longer clear whether that image belongs to the so-called “reality” or not, in a semantic and iconic confusion that requires proper space-time placing, a translation and interpretation, until the short-circuit occurs, i.e. the paradox in which, according to research, it is discovered that approximately up to 11 years of age, most children are not fully aware that the images and verbal messages of advertising are constructed to lead us to the purchase of products.

Arguing about the image, we use the example of the photographic image: it predominates in the determination of the reality, especially for the urban contemporary psyche. This is so true that those images that start as a representation of reality, become representations without any “reality” behind them. According to French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard, the image, in the postmodern conception, can be summarized in four types:


1.The image is the reflection of a deeper reality

2.The image disguises and perverts a deeper reality

3.The image disguises the absence of a deeper reality

4.The image has no relationship with reality: it is a mere simulacrum, intending for simulacrum an appearance, an image that, contrary to the icon, does not refer to any reality lying under.


Here, then, what is the challenge and the opportunity that we believe may be contained in a search path toward the center, toward the Self: the chance to “take a look” beyond the superficial appearance, which is likely not to forward to a non-lying-under reality and confining ourselves to the illusion that “it’s all here,” opening, to those who want, a series of questions, one of which could be the following: “is that world, the unconscious world of each of us existing prior of our discovery, an a priori, or is it embodied just as a result of our investigation, which we call psychoanalysis”?

Life, existence, is much more than a series of behavioral patterns more or less tested – by others – to inspire us and on whose footprints we repeat something already done said, seen and thought. The uniqueness of our Being, however, is attested continuously by our unconscious through a lapsus, with premonitions, forgetfulness, or with dreams that every time, at every age, in every culture, never cease to frighten , inspire, amaze with their absolutely and absurd originality.

Why, then, this sense of horror that emerges in the stories of mermaids or in dreams of mermaids, which is never a pure horror but is almost always flavored, accompanied by a component that is unspeakably attractive? Why this discomfort? My interpretation is that their physical proximity to Man, as well as their mental one, leads these dis-human beings – but not too much – to makes us feel a certain commonality, an affinity that, in many dreams, result in a much greater terror than, say, a meeting with a monster-monster. The meeting with the Mermaid, but also with the Centaur, the Chimeras, forces us to accept our submerged parts, not human or not yet human, revealing how fragile may be the distance separating from reason, the logic, full consciousness and our Shadows, our instincts, our being animal.

Concluding, I would like to remark that the point of view inherent in this short article should be interpreted as an opportunity for trying to change perspective, to change the lenses with which we look at the world we live in, for becoming “world” ourselves too, daring, if it is the case, even to make choices that are less conservative and yet more sacred, both for us and for the universe. There is a Japanese short story about a farmer who, alone, cultivated his field on the hill above the village in which he lived; suddenly, watching the sea on the horizon, he saw that a huge tsunami wave was fast approaching the village. The farmer was shocked by what was going to happen; without wasting time, he did something seemingly absurd and seemingly antisocial: he set fire to all the fields close to his. The other farmers rushed to the village to save their harvest, but precisely at that moment they understand that, by means of an apparently criminal gesture, the farmer had saved their lives.

We believe that this very short story contains part of the meaning of the “journey” toward the center of our self, that is, if this journey is done with awareness, it is an opportunity to try to see things, life, our existence in a seemingly circular path, just as the three travelers of Jules Verne’s Journey to the center of the Earth do. As admirably summed up in an alchemical aphorism: “for those who are not on the path of knowledge, a tree is just a tree; for those who are on the path, a tree ceases to be a tree;, for those who have attained knowledge, a tree again becomes a tree“.

Levinas on dying – An interpretation of Edvard Munch’s The Death of Marat II (1907)

Edvard Munch made in total four oil-paintings on canvas of Marat. The one I am looking at is The death of Marat II(1907) – it is named number M 4 in the catalogue of The Munch Museum in Oslo. The painting is also part of the Google Art Project and available online here: http://www.googleartproject.com/collection/the-munch-museum-oslo/artwork/the-death-of-marat-ii-edvard-munch/469025/



Levinas’ thinking on death can be described as a phenomenological examination where the subject’s relation to the Other, the subject’s emotions suffering, sorrow and pain and the conditions solitude and loneliness are examined. But before going into all this something should be said about the role of the Other (person) in Levinas’ overall philosophy. Towards the end of his first major work Totality and Infinity from 1961, Levinas describes the Other with some examples: as a brother, as a stranger and as the poor.[i] Levinas explains that the Other presents himself as an equal to the subject. In meeting the Other the Other’s face calls the subject to responsibility. In meeting the Other not only the subject’s freedom is put into question, the meeting calls the subject to responsibility. With a focus on the Others face one could suspect the face disclose an inward world that the Other carries inside in Levinas’ philosophy, but it does not, rather the face “…calls to me above and beyond the given that speech already puts in common among us.[ii]” The Other’s face calls the subject above and beyond speech. In Levinas thinking every social relation leads back to the presentation of the Other like a shunt “…to the same without the intermediary of any image or sign, solely by the expression of the face.[iii]” In his thinking on death Levinas’ focuses both on the subject’s own death and the death of the Other, but not on the subject’s experience of loss when someone dies. Levinas begins with the subject’s proximity to the Other in his understanding of death. As an example of dying, Levinas refers to a scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I find this turn to Shakespeare amazing and will try to understand the relation between death, suffering and loneliness so important in Levinas’ thinking by looking into another work of art, one not referred to by Levinas. What I in the following more precisely would like to do is to use Levinas thinking on death as a key for interpreting Edvard Munch’s painting The Death of Marat II (The Murderess) 1907. Levinas exemplifies dying by using Macbeth, and exemplifies the Other as a brother, a stranger and the poor. I believe Levinas chose his examples with great care. But instead of dwelling on these characters in the following I will use the painting of Marat when trying to understand his thinking on death.



Despites the before mentioned fundamental proximity, Levinas holds that every human individual stands in a distance to other individuals and exists in solitude. Levinas describes existential solitude as one of the human individuals’ ways of being, but do not address the Robinsonade neither the problem of other minds in modern philosophy.[iv] Instead he thinks that the subject in its existence is isolated and might experience solitude as a consequence of isolation, and relates existential solitude to suffering, sorrow and pain. To Levinas suffering is the mode of being closest to death and an end of existential solitude, not because suffering can end in death, but because existential solitude is unbearable. This unbearableness represents by darkness in Levinas’ thinking – suffering is outside of all light, as he says. Death is unknown and cannot take place in in the light. Death is like a hollow and will always be unknown and surrounded by darkness. For the subject death is like a mystery, and the subject cannot relate to death as if death was something inside of himself. At the same time the subject’s relation to death is part of the subject’s relation to the Other, in Levinas’ thinking, and with this understanding he separates from thinkers he otherwise got familiarities to – and disagrees with – as Heidegger, Sartre and Kierkegaard. They all think that death gets into the selfhood of the subject and individuates it.[v] For Levinas it is the relation to the Other – the infinite responsibility – that is comparable to the subject’s relation to death. To him the subject relates to death as something on the outside of itself, as something never graspable, and through suffering, sorrow and pain the subject for himself and in himself make proximity to death graspable. This proximity to death in pain and suffering need not be the subject’s own, also the Others pain and suffering might do proximity to death graspable to the subject.

Levinas narrows his position by saying that the suffering and pain he wants to address in relation to death is physical, and not what he calls a moral pain. On moral pain he says that it is possible to remain dignity and innocence while suffer and simultaneously be free. Physical pain he relates to loneliness and says that suffering is not fully exposed in what we are shown through our suffering. One part of the suffering is veiled, and in a definite sense not known to us. This part of the suffering represents something outside of the subject and remains in darkness. Neither the physical nor the moral pain holds the clarity of the factual.       In his thinking Levinas associates light to joy, involvement and all attachment. Every reachable and absorbed object that can become knowledge got light.  Objects of sensation and emotion might tread into the light, while death and suffering remain in darkness. This lack of light should not be seen as a negation, as he says, but expresses that death is unknowable. Levinas tries to drag the concepts suffering, sorrow and pain closer to the subject’s reality in his thinking. Through the insight that death itself is not suffering or pain Levinas points to the relations between these concepts and the unknown darkness they got in common. There are some important differences between these concepts. Levinas holds that death will always be the future for the subject; that it is never here. Our inability to grasp death means that what he calls the end of the subject’s virility and heroism are out of reach too. Levinas illustrates a moment of death with a scene from Macbeth. It is the scene where Macbeth realize that the end is near; the moment when Wood comes marching. This makes Macbeth tell Macduff about his malediction, and Levinas sees this scene as the end of Macbeth’s virility and heroism. Levinas’ reference to this scene in Macbeth made me want to find another work of art to try to interpret here.


Dying on canvas

I will try to understand Levinas’ thinking on death while doing an interpretation of Edvard Munch’s painting of Marat. Generally we can say that Munch’s paintings often show personifications of abstract ideas through conceptualizations of emotions like love, loneliness, shame, anxiety and jealousy. Munch had a great talent for this, and this is why I thought of his paintings while reading Levinas; their availability of emotional expression. But I want to achieve another goal as well. I want to find out if another work of art than the one Levinas himself points to might give some insights to his thinking on death. Levinas uses Macbeth. I would like to see if another example might be possible. To me it seems like Levinas is making some kind of indirect explanations when he uses Macbeth as an example. Simply put it seems like dying becomes heroic because of Macbeth the hero. One could ask if not even Macbeth even in the chosen scene holds other additional characteristics than virility and heroism. Overall we find many scenes, and painting, about dying and in using one not mentioned by Levinas I want to dig a bit deeper into his thinking of death. It is not given that the painting suits Levinas thinking the way Macbeth does, but I hope an interpretation of the painting seen in relation to Levinas thinking might give new insights.

Munch painted a murder, and the picture of the murdered and the murderer gives an opportunity to reflect on death. In death Levinas finds darkness, he describes the dying persons suffering and solitude. I want to look for this in Munch’s painting. Munch made the painting while staying in Warnemünde in 1907. Warnemünde was a sleepy port at Germany’s northern coast. The theme of all his paintings from there is his own earlier experiences as in so many of his paintings. Munch himself experienced great loss in his early years. As 15 years old he had lost both his sister and his mother, and many of his best known paintings shows their sickness and dying. The factual starting point for the paintings of Marat and Corday is an episode with a gun. Munch shot his own hand in the turbulence around leaving Tulla Larsen to whom he was related the years 1898 – 1902. It should be said that the shooting episode never threatened the life of neither Tulla Larsen nor himself. If we take all the paintings that Munch made in Warnemünde into consideration it might be said that they express some specific negative emotion in all their commonness.[vi] With powerful and clearly marked vertical, but also some horizontal strokes Munch builds up plains in these pictures, and to great extend in my chosen picture of Marat and Corday. He’s strokes gives a small hypnotic effect. In his thinking on death Levinas describes, as mentioned, emotions he says got a common ground and a relation to death. In Munch’s paintings from the early twentieth century, and to a large extent the pictures he showed at his exhibition in Prague in 1905, a bit before staying at Warnemünde, Munch focused on painting his own emotions and experiences.[vii] In The Death of Marat II (The Murderess), 1907, we find the well-known characters from the French revolution, Corday and Marat. Marat became a well-known motive through Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting from 1793, and Corday became a well-known person by killing Marat. David dwells with Marat’s suffering in his painting. An understanding of his murder Corday’s action is hard to find. She is not part of David’s painting.

But in Munch’s painting we can see how Corday stands as if she likens a column in the room after her killing of Marat. Munch has placed Marat on his bed. Corday does not look aggressive where she stands in the foreground of the picture. To me it seems like some kind of inner silence that has sunken into her. Over Marat’s face lays a shadow. The darkness in the green area over his head contrasts the light falling on Corday, and in the paintings overall composition the laying Marat makes a contrast the standing Corday so that the two characters balances the painting. Munch painted Corday so that her feet are pointing a little bit outwards. It does not look like she rests on her feet. On the contrary it seems like she strives upwards in the vertical axis of the picture. The area to the left of her got a blue color, slightly brighter than the rest of the blue beside her. Corday looks downwards. It says that Corday fooled Marat by giving him names of the Girondins, and that the names were Corday’s excuse for visiting Marat with assassination as a hidden agenda. Corday came from a royalist family and fooled Marat to believe that she wanted to betray the Girondins. During the case against her after the killing resulting in her death she argued she prevented Marat from getting 100.000 Girondins killed. But in fact Marat had no such power. Marat supported the Sans-Culottes and was much of their link to the Jacobins. Munch’s painting should be seen as symbolic, but I think that this historical background is important for understanding this much used motif. Levinas, in his thinking, says that death is something hidden and unknown, something dwelling in darkness. A painting on the other hand is very direct and even displaying. When I look at Munch’s painting of Marat and Corday I get a feeling as if I have seen something that one in fear turns away from. I find the painting demonstrative, like an opening to something hidden and veiled that Munch drags out into the light; the murder Corday should be seen. The light falls on her body.

Marat lays dead in the background kept out from us the living by Corday who stands in the foreground. Can we find any guilt or regret in Corday? It says that Corday surprised Marat and strokes him right in the heart. In Levinas philosophy we got the imperative “Thou shalt not kill” as the first premise, the grounding premise. Levinas would probably not have any sympathy or understanding to offer Corday, but reject and condemn her action in accord with his starting point – our infinite responsibility to the Other.[viii] Levinas condemns all violence and every murder. In an interview from 1993 he points out very clearly that the core of justice is the demand never to regard the Other as mean,[ix] like we know this position from Kant’s categorical imperative. The death of the Other affects me into my identity as a responsible I, according to Levinas. It affects my, as he says, not-substantial identity and my endless responsibility. The death of the Other affects my identity as me. This is neither a second-hand experience nor a privileged death experience. It changes the subject in itself, it repeals the subject as the same, creates repealing into the subjects own self.  The subject’s self is no longer the same, as he says. And in thoughts like these Levinas narrows Heidegger’s view on death. Heidegger says that being-towards-death got an anxiety leading Dasein into proper (eigentlich) being. Dasein gets into a reflection of its selfhood. But Levinas thinks that the subject’s affinity for the death of the Other and its meaningfulness is stronger than any anxiety, and precisely this is what Levinas find missing in Heidegger’s approach. For Levinas the death of the Other is a message with a meaning that changes the subject. It is not an experience for the subject, but an exceeding that change the subject’s relation to itself. For the subject it seems like an influence, but at the same time as passivity, it is like an influence of something incomparable. The death of the Other is the influence of something not present, something more intimate than any intimacy, as he says.[x] If we should take these insights with us back to Munch’s painting, we would have to look for guilt or regret in Corday. But it seems like Corday has reached some kind of silence standing in the foreground of the picture surrounded by light, and it does not look like regret.


Murder in Levinas’ Philosophy

A sequence of time can be read into Munch’s painting. Marat lies behind Corday standing in foreground. As foreground one could say that Corday somehow gathers a future, a present and a past. The scene Munch painted is the aftermath of the killing. In my impression we get a propensity regarding the killing, as in the present. We know of the peaceful past when Marat was alone in his home. Seen in relation to the title The Death of Marat II (The Murderess) we have to regard the picture as the titles future. For at the canvas Marat is already dead. Another way reading a dimension of time into the painting is to say that Marat by lying in the background of Corday, is left behind her and can be seen as past to her. Corday seeks out of the picture, upwards and into the light with Marat placed behind her. The action of killing is a now, and what we see is at the aftermath of this present. Corday stands in the room looking tranquilly. In this way the painting captures actions where Corday through Munch’s title and composition becomes part of the three mentioned situations.

Death will always be the future, Levinas says, as he points out that death is never the present – as long as the subject lives death is future. Levinas’ does also think that death marks the end of the subject’s virility and heroism, as with Macbeth. But in addition to time and the absence thereof we got the existential solitude in dying according to Levinas; the subject’s loneliness and suffering, sorrow and pain. Trying to interpret the painting according to Levinas thinking, one have to ask if it is reasonable in any sense to say about Corday that she is experiencing existential solitude? Her calmness after the murder might give us an impression like these, but she murdered Marat, fooled him, was his enemy, so the reason for her eventually solitude is her own action; her killing. And what I have described as an inner silence, that in my view her closed expression, her closed eyes and her closed moth gives an understanding of, does not give the impression that she is suffering, in pain or sorrow, and most importantly; she is alive. So could it be wiser to search for an existential solitude, for loneliness and suffering, sorrow and pain in Marat? Before moving on to Marat something more should be said about murder according to Levinas thinking.

Surely the death of Marat cannot be seen in any other way than the death of an individual, but Levinas’ finds a universal aspect as well in his thinking on murder. On murder Levinas holds that we in the passion for it approach death as nothingness, and that the spontaneous intentionality of this aims at annihilation. In murder of the Other we identify death with nothingness.[xi] But, as he says, this nothingness present itself as a sort of impossibility, for the Other cannot present himself as Other outside of my conscience, and inside of my conscience the Others face expresses my moral impossibility of annihilating him. This impossibility looks at me from the eyes I want to extinguish, and therefor Levinas consider the annihilation in murder as a purely relative annihilation. And in this it seems most plausible to consider the Other inside of the murder’s own conscience as something particular. Further, Levinas says that my own death cannot be deduced from the death of the others by analogy, but is inscribed in the fear I can have for my being, and my fear of violence, because what I am exposed to in death is absolute violence, like a murder in the night.[xii]

Levinas’ thinking on the loneliness actualized in relation to death and pain is rightly not only the dying subject’s but also the Other’s, and even though Levinas is not addressing murder in this context here, I would like to hold on to Marat for a while. For Levinas Macbeth becomes an example of how death is the end of a person’s virility and heroism. What I want to do is investigate if Marat can exemplify Levinas’ view of death, eventually Corday, or Munch’s painting as a whole. Marat is dead, his face has a shadow and is surrounded by a dark green color, and Corday is alive and stands in the foreground and the light falls over her. Levinas says that death is like a hollow and cannot take place in the light. Death got some of the qualities of darkness, and it seems like Levinas holds that death got particularity in common with loneliness and solitude. To Levinas suffering, sorrow, pain, solitude and loneliness got proximity to death. Some of the qualities of the darkness surrounding death are attached to them, and this is what Levinas calls the unknown. Levinas holds that the subject in its existence is isolated and might experience unbearable existential solitude, and it is this state of solitude he relates to sorrow, suffering and pain. This suffering got a quality ungraspable for the subject and it is precisely this quality that is part of death, as he says. Levinas holds that it is possible to come closer to an understanding of the darkness in death through an understanding of the death of the Other. The way of doing this is by seeing how the others suffering, sorrow and pain relates to death, as he says. For David the suffering is the main topic when painting Marat, but Munch’s painting is different. When Munch did his painting the death of Marat was a well-established motif, and Marat’s suffering often expressed in paintings and sculptures. Did Munch paint Marat’s pain, sorrow and suffering, his loneliness and existential solitude? At the canvas Marat’s feet are pointing inwards further into the background of the painting away from the one looking at it. In this respect Marat is by himself and can be considered lonely, but on the other hand; Marat accepted Corday’s visit before she killed him, and it seems strange to consider Marat as solitude. Eventually we can understand solitude in a more abstract way – as a part of dying. We can consider that dying creates an existential loneliness and solitude. We must at least state that Marat by being murdered has been in pain and has suffered.


The Other’s suffering and death

There are two points underlying the subject’s relation to death that need to be addressed. The first is about duration: Levinas holds that for the subject death will always be the future. The second is about time: Levinas holds that the isolated subject does not relate to time, but that time should be seen as a part of the subject’s relation to the Other.[xiii] Levinas writes about a dimension of time when describing the relation to the Other in his second main work Otherwise than being or beyond Essence from 1974. Here he says that the proximity between the subject and the Other opens up a distance of diachrony.[xiv] The diachrony opens up as a result of the fact that the subject and the Other do not share a past in common. Levinas calls this difference in past the subject’s non-indifference with the Other.  The diachrony points to the infinite responsibility for the Other, and even though this does not explain why the isolated subject does not relate to time, it does tell how time is part of the relationship with the other in Levinas thinking.

Death and knowledge seems to be antagonists in Levinas thinking. Levinas says that knowledge holds some of the qualities of the light, by eating what is unique and outstanding.[xv] One reason for this is that knowledge is something universal contrasting the particularity of the subject in its existential loneliness. Levinas writes: “It [the subject] finds itself enchained, overwhelmed, and in some way passive. Death is in this sense the limit of idealism.”[xvi] Moreover death’s very existence is made of alterity; the subject’s solitude is not confirmed by death but broken by it, as he says, and this is the reason why the subject’s relation to the Other got aspects of the subject’s relation to death in it. We recognize the Other as resembling us, but exterior to us; the relationship with the other is a relationship with a mystery. The Other’s entire being is constituted by its exteriority to us and by its alterity. On the death of the Other Levinas writes:


“In the totality of the historiographer the death of the other is an end, the point at which the separated being is cast into totality, and at which, consequently, dying, can be passed through and past, the point from which the separated being will continue by virtue of the heritage his existence had amassed… What “still remains” is totally different from the future that one welcomes, that one projects forth and in a certain measure draws from oneself. For a being to whom everything happens in conformity with projects death is an absolute event, absolutely a posteriori, open to no power, not even to negation… the non-reference to the common time of history means that mortal existence unfolds in a dimension that does not run parallel to the time of history and is not situated with respect to this time as an absolute.”[xvii]


Levinas uses Macbeth to illustrate the subject’s time and experience in dying. Macbeth understands that he is going to die. Wood who comes marching is really powerful, and Macbeth says: “Ring the alarm-bell!…” To Levinas this exemplifies how death marks the subject’s limit of suffering and also the limit of the subject’s heroism and virility. Macbeth knows that he will lose the battle. Levinas sees his will to fight the one overpowering him as something virile and heroic. To this it might be remarked that not all dying is heroic and virile. We could point to Corday who does not think of Marat that she killed as a hero, and that we sometimes will find differences in perspectives on the one dying. Levinas tells that death got a future, but that this future is not the dying subject’s future. To the dying subject death is passivity.

At the canvas Marat’s face lay in the shadow, he looks death and peaceful. But the sheet of the bed is bloody, and the one arm of his hangs listless down against the floor. Levinas says that death makes the subject’s activity to passivity, and that death shares this ability with suffering. Marat has been in pain, suffered and now he is dead. He lies passively on his bed. Munch has placed him so that his body point inwards into the picture, like he’s moving into death and darkness away from us looking, away from Corday.

To me it seems implausible to look for an understanding of death in Corday whom murdered Marat. In Levinas thinking we might get insights on death in the death of the Other, but as mentioned Levinas regards murder as a relative annihilation and says that the face of the Other will still be in the murders conscience. Therefore it seems more promising to look at Marat himself in Munch’s painting, and leave Corday behind. Marat’s suffering is not the main theme of Munch’s painting, but seen as the Other in Levinas’ thinking it must be Munch’s ability to express Marat’s suffering, sorrow and pain, his loneliness and solitude that makes the death of Marat – as the Other according to Levinas – graspable for us looking at the painting. But even though this might give us some insights on dying Levinas describes our knowledge as light and death as something unknown, hollow and dark. Light and knowledge are something general in Levinas philosophy, something that reduces both darkness and particularity. Therefore, by getting knowledge you are at the same time reducing the particular by making what you examine – death – general. If we are given insights by looking at the painting it is by an understanding of Marat’s suffering. To Levinas suffering is the mode of being closest to death. The understanding must be seen as an understanding of something particular; as the death of Marat and not dying in general. Through the proximity to the Other we grasp something about death by looking at the dying Marat at the canvas, and what we see in this hollow and unknown darkness is, according to Levinas, a part of Marat’s suffering that belongs to death and that Marat himself does not recognize. To Levinas this insight is not an experience for the one looking at the painting but an exceeding that changes the subject’s relation to itself.



[i]   Emmanuel Levinas(1969):          Totality an Infinity    Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 212 – 214

[ii]   Emmanuel Levinas(1969):          Totality an Infinity    Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 212.

[iii]   Emmanuel Levinas(1969):         Totality an Infinity    Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 213.

[iv]    This presentation of Levinas thinking on death builds to large extends on the third of the four lectures       Levinas gave at Collège philosophique de Jean Wahl in Paris in 1946 and 1947. Emmanuel Levinas (1987): Time and the Other. Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, pp.67-79, for the theme solitude see page 42 ff.

[v]    Martin Heidegger (1962):          Being and Time.               Oxford: Blackwell. § 49, page 292.

[vi]   Sissel Biørnstad (ed.) (1999):    Munch og Warnemünde.  Oslo: Munch-museet Labyrinth Press, page 51.

[vii]  Sissel Biørnstad (ed.) (1999):    Munch og Warnemünde.  Oslo: Munch-museet Labyrinth Press, page 123.

[viii]    Emmanuel Levinas (1969):       Totality and Infinity.         Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 199.

[ix]     Jodalen og Vetlesen (1997):      Closeness an ethics.         Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, page 54.

[x]    Emmanuel Levinas (2000):       God, Death, and Time.     California: Standford University Press, page 12.

[xi]   Emmanuel Levinas (1969):        Totality and Infinity.         Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 232.

[xii]    Emmanuel Levinas (1969): Totality and Infinity.               Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 233–235.   Stanley Cavell points to a similar point regarding violence and the singular Other in Levinas’ thinking in his essay “What is the scandal of skepticism?” in his Philosophy the day after tomorrow, Harvard University Press 2005, page 145, but his references to Levinas’ oeuvre are others than mine.


[xiii]    Emmanuel Levinas (1987):       Time and the Other.         Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 39, 57.

[xiv]      Emmanuel Levinas (1974):     Otherwise than being…   London: Kluwer Academic publishers, page 89.

[xv]    Emmanuel Levinas (1987):       Time and the Other.         Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 65.

[xvi]   Emmanuel Levinas (1987):       Time and the Other.         Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 71.

[xvii]  Emmanuel Levinas (1969):       Totality and Infinity.         Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, page 56.