I’ve becoming increasingly aware of the complexities involved in the processes of time passing in the last few weeks. In part this is because I’ve been reading James Hillman again, whose Guardian obituary suggested he was the most important US psychologist since William James. Always a subversive and original writer, he constantly reimagined the possibilities inherent in the Jungian tradition. Among his many qualities I admire is the fact that he was fiercely critical of America’s dedication to the pursuit of happiness, and often chose to focus on the darkest and most difficult of human experiences – illness, depression, failure and suicide – seeing them not as abnormal pathologies that should be avoided or cured but as a source of insight. One of my favourite Hillman quote goes follows:
“We do not die alone. We join ancestors, and all the little people, the multiple souls who inhabit our nightworld of dreams, the complexes we speak with, the invisible guests who pass through our lives, bringing the gifts of urges and terrors, tender sighs, sudden ideas – they are with us all along, those angels, those demons”. Recovery (1992).
As I’ve got older, I have had a growing sense of all those ‘others’ crowding in a little closer.
Something that relates indirectly to this sense of the ancestors and others pressing in on us is that I have just returned from conducting a PhD viva with Kathleen Bartlett, a doctoral student studying at the College of Art and Design in Limerick. Her practice-based exploration of the ruin of Doonass House and the land surrounding it, in County Clare, Ireland, has involved site visits, archive searches, interviews and a wide variety of other creative work to produce painting, photography, sculpture, video and the re-presentation of found objects. Over time the various ghosts of the house’s convoluted past have, it seems, actively intervened in the project. They required that she began to deepen her enquiry by conducting archival searches, which in turn threw up significant photographs and texts that have further amplified and thickened out a host of interwoven narrative strands, threads of formally unacknowledged story and hidden history associated with the house that, with Kathy as catalyst, are collectively being woven into the rich fabric of a regional act of collective testimonial imagination. So it seems that it is not just us who do not die alone. The ruins of a house too may be joined by associated ancestors and multiple souls, human and non-human, who inhabit its nightworlds of dream and the twilights of gossip and rumour, the complexes a community speaks with or hides from, the invisible guests who pass through its collective life, bringing to that community the gifts of urges and terrors, tender sighs, and sudden ideas. In evoking and facilitating this process through acts of testimonial imagination, artists like Kathy keep us listening to the ancestors, a process Hillman tells us we neglect at our peril.
Another, less serious, factor in my increased awareness of time is that I’ve just had to renew my passport, a process that now requires you to review you passport photograph and work out whether or not you’ve changed so much in the last ten years as to be unrecognisable to the people in the passport office. This process of retrospection is not helped by the fact that you are not allowed to smile for your passport photograph!