Monday, August 24, 2015

One Eternal Round

Take a look at this verse from the Book of Mormon:
"For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round." (1 Nephi 10:19)
Those words in bold have always been one of my favorite phrases in scripture. "One eternal round" conjures images of serpents eating their own tails, of the Islamic procession around the Kaaba, or even of the Jungian mandala. But notwithstanding all these symbolic resonances, what does the phrase actually mean? The question arises of whether we can even grasp the meaning of that "eternal round" while locked up in our "straightforward," linear time. But I think we can at least get close. If we can't go right to the center of its meaning, we can at least circumambulate it (that is, get a proper view of it by "walking around it" in a circle). Let's now look at three distinct takes on the idea of an "eternal round," one from philosopher Gaston Bachelard, one from the psychology of Carl Jung, and one from archetypal psychologist James Hillman.

In his work The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes a chapter called "The Phenomenology of Roundness," where he tackles the meaning of statements like these:
"Every being seems in itself round." -Karl Jaspers

"Life is probably round." -Vincent Van Gogh

"He had not been told that life was beautiful. No! Life was round." -Joë Bousquet

"A walnut makes me quite round." -Jean de la Fontaine
Bachelard takes these quotations which, though from very different sources, are surprisingly similar, and weaves something amazing out of them. Referring to these phrases, he writes:
"If we take them in their suddenness, we realize that we think of nothing else, that we are entirely in the being of this expression. If we submit to the hypnotic power of such expressions, suddenly we find ourselves entirely in the roundness of being, we live in the roundness of life, like a walnut that becomes round in its shell. A philosopher, a painter, a poet and an inventor of fables have given us documents of pure phenomenology. It is up to us now to use them in order to learn how to gather being together in its center."
Questions pop up: what's so special about roundness? Does life even have a shape? Does being have a center? And yet, these quotations also bring up something deep in my soul. For the same reason the Book of Mormon's "one eternal round" is powerful, this "roundness of life" strikes to the heart, to the marrow of my bones. But why? Could it be because our first drawings of people as children are always circles? Is it an echo of Aristophanes' two-sexed beings with four arms and four legs, who--though split apart by the gods into men and women--were originally round? Food for thought, at least. But the funny thing about circles is that every point along the circumference is just as close to the center as any other point. It is equality incarnate in geometry, wholeness given form.
Bachelard continues by saying:
"I repeat, images of full roundness help us collect ourselves, permit us to confer an initial constitution on ourselves, and to confirm our being intimately, inside. For when it is experienced from the inside, devoid of all exterior features, being cannot be otherwise than round."
Just as the circle has a perfectly delineated center, the circle is a symbol of our own centered-ness, the way all of our being circles around our own central origins. With the circle, all of us--our whole "circumference"--refers to a single point, though we can never touch that point per se. Instead, we all "orbit" our centers, one point never closer nor farther away from it than another. And that is the circle's beauty.

On another note, these remarks remind me of Carl Jung's understanding of the "mandala" image.

A "mandala" is a kind of circular artistic design originating in Indian religions, often constituting an important religious function. When he was writing his Red Book, Jung discovered that circular images very reminiscent of these mandalas came up in his spontaneous drawings and fantasies, and eventually concluded that they were a very important psychological symbol. He essentially says that mandalas are a visual representation of a person's whole self, both the conscious and unconscious parts. As far as I understand, the perimeter or circumference of the mandala represents myself as a conscious ego, which is therefore just the surface of the deeper, more essential parts of my identity. According to this conception, the mandala's center symbolizes my innermost self, my being as it is in itself, that which my conscious ego merely orbits.

In connection with Bachelard's observations on the "roundness of being," we might deduce that, when he writes that images of roundness "help us collect ourselves," he is really just describing the psychological function Jung attributes to the mandala. The circle is our whole being represented in an image; my body and my outward personality circumambulate a center that, though deeper than they can ever reach, keeps them oriented or grounded in a single point. As such, it gives us an image of how the universe's multiplicity can be grounded in unity. Though there are many points on the circle's outer circumference, they are all equally close to the center, as if the circumference were just the center "projected" into something bigger and more externally visible. Think of that! If being is really round, everything we see is ultimately a projection of the same one point. Though everything looks different and separate, we can have solace knowing that those separate things are just so many different radiuses, all pointing to the center from which everything comes and to which everything refers.

Finally, we turn our attention to psychologist James Hillman's work The Dream and the Underworld, where he says in reference to the Jungian mandala:
"Sometimes, spontaneous images of roundness bring a healing beyond paranoid defensiveness, beyond safety within one's private scheme of personal integration. These images must therefore afford another, an impersonal kind of integration. The individual free soul moves into a perspective of cosmic necessity, we become part of the circle we move in, whatever that circle might be--neurotic, social, intellectual. We have become necessary to it and taken into it. 
The circular states of repetitiveness, turning and turning in the gyres of our own conditions, force us to recognize that these conditions are our very essence and that the soul's circular motion (which is its native motion, according to Plotinus) cannot be distinguished from blind fate. It is as if the soul frees itself not by blindness but by its continuing turning in it. Ultimately, if the spontaneous mandala heals, it does so because it compels a realization of the limitation of consciousness, that my mind and heart and will turn only in a circle, and yet that same circle is my portion of an eternal necessity."
In contrast to Jung, Hillman emphasizes the inherent limitation of circular images more than their potential to represent completion. He implies that the circle, by going around and around and around, represents an inherently bounded state, where one goes nowhere and yet goes on forever. But need this be depressing? I don't think so, at least not if we rephrase his idea. As Bachelard and Jung say that circular images help us collect ourselves around a single point, let's remember that the circle is not a spiral--the circumference never reaches the center. To put that in the psychological terms I associated with the mandala above, we might understand that to mean that my ego consciousness--the awareness I perceive with right now--can never vault itself over to the innermost parts of my being. My ego or my normal conscious awareness is therefore always a servant, always circling around the true being yet never assuming its place. Again, is this a cause for depression? Not if we remember that I am not my ego, that there is a deeper part of me whose influence I can only dimly discern with my waking vision. The ego circles that deeper self, and though it can never supplant that self, it always receives the grace and influx that emanates from the central point.

What does this all mean? My life may seek to be going nowhere; I am still limited in some way or another, and I see no reason to believe I will ever stop being limited. But the brilliant thing about the circle as Hillman and the others conceive it is that this finitude can contain infinity within it. I may seem to be in one place, never moving. But in reality that one place contains an ever-circling infinity of movement in it--a heaven revealed in the grain of sand that is my life, infinity within the finitude of American suburbia.

To finish, I turn to a quote by Joseph Smith, one that wraps up all that I've discussed here:
"I take my ring from my finger and liken it unto the mind of man, the immortal spirit, because it has no beginning. Suppose I cut it in two; as the Lord lives, because it has a beginning, it would have an end."
We have no beginning, no end. Against traditional interpretations of this phrase, I don't take it just to refer to time in its familiar sense. It's true that my being extends into the furthest reaches of past and future; however, I am not just endless in length of time but in my own present being. I am a circle myself--though I appear limited and finite, I contain infinity within myself as it wraps itself into the limited circumference of my outward self. Perhaps this is what the Lord's course as "one eternal round" really means: that His course seems to go nowhere, but is inwardly vast. What else are our ordinances or our doctrine of an embodied God? They too are an eternal round--though outwardly limited, they refer to and contain an infinity within. That is the true meaning of Mormonism or even Christianity in general: that the finite is infinite, that the flesh is spiritual, that the human is divine.

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