Who Makes Procrustes’ Bed?

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

—T.S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets

For Sigmund Freud, we hide things from ourselves (greedy sexual desires and impulses to violence) that would be too shocking or upsetting to the ego’s concept of itself to admit. This is the origin of the unconscious in his view, which is no more than a garbage can of cast-off horrors—the limbs amputated by Procrustean knives, or the funhouse mirror distortions of tortured souls on his awful rack. We have a taboo against knowing our own darkness, so we deceive ourselves. As good Dr. Jekylls, we seek to hide our Mr. Hydes, both from ourselves and from others. This was Freud’s view.

But what if our greatest self-deception is that we cannot bear to face our own light? Dark corners—yes, certainly; we all have them. But what creates the contrast with that darkness, and makes it at once marginal and yet visible? Is it not the greater identity and truth of the central light of what C.G. Jung called the Self?

In that case, the greatest scandal is to be presented with clear and unambiguous evidence of our luminous, numinous Selfhood. Following Alan Watts, there is indeed a cultural taboo against knowing who and what we really are. Internalizing this unwritten rule of the Freudian superego, it soon vanishes from our conscious awareness and falls into the unconscious, where it ossifies into a mechanical habit of mind. As Nietzsche well knew, this force of habit becomes the inner Dragon trapping us in our sense of smallness and pessimism, holding us back and pinning us down. To break that habit requires enormous strength of will and courage of heart. In order to slay that Dragon, one must first become a Lion.

I say all this as one who has belatedly realized how easy and automatic it was to fall continually back into the role of the obedient, docile Camel. But then, that’s the point, isn’t it? We go back to sleeping in Procrustes’ bed, even though we know better. Or should. Will we even recognize ourselves when we finally leave that bed, and take a good, long look in the metaphysical mirror?


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