What Ails the Fisher King?

The Fisher King

The Fisher King. William T. Ayton,  2011.

A tale in brief:  Parsifal and the Fisher King

When re-approaching the tale, I found this concise version by Lesley Usher that succeeds in a beautiful way to convey the crucial points:

“When Parsifal lost his father, he was still a little boy and so his mother took him to an isolated cottage in the woods to raise him. In this way his mother shielded him from all knowledge of the world and its dangers. One day, however, he encountered a Grail knight and decided that he, too, would become one. A mere fifteen years old and dressed only in the homespun garments his mother made for him, Parsifal left home.

His travels brought him to the magical Grail Castle. Not everyone can see the castle but since Parsifal was innocent and pure he was able to see it. Once inside, he met the wounded Fisher King and witnessed the spectacle of the Grail procession. He longed to ask what the procession meant and why the king suffered. But his mother had warned him that it was impolite to be inquisitive and so he refrained from asking any questions. This silence was tragic, as asking those questions would have ended the suffering of the king.

Shortly after leaving the castle, Parsifal learned of his mistake. He wanted to return and set things right but it was too late. The Grail Castle had disappeared.

For the next twenty years, Parsifal tried to find his way back to the castle and to the wounded Fisher King. Finally he did (after many adventures) and when he asked the questions — Why does the king suffer? Whom does the Grail serve? — the Fisher King was healed and Parsifal, no longer a young fool, became the keeper of the Grail.” (Lesley Usher at Life as Myth)

While the tale offers a wide range of interpretive approaches, here I’ll focus on the hidden castle, the wound of the Fisher King, and the transformation of unconscious dynamics.

The Concealed Grail Castle

That the Grail Castle is hidden, undiscoverable but by one innocent and pure, challenges us to consider what has the power to conceal the sought after realm.   As I’ve shared before, it has been my experience that shame often operates with a cloak of invisibility.

What is interesting is that in the Judeo/Christian culture, guilt is often pointed to as the cause of loss of innocence and purity.  If we can shift our perspective slightly we begin to recognize that this is yet another way that shame has managed to remain concealed.  John Beebe, in his book Integrity in Depth, has pointed out that shame has a prospective function in that it protects the most valuable contents of soul, the pearl of great price.

Unless we take the broad definition of sin, to miss the mark, it is hard to find guilt in Parsifal’s keeping quiet.  Allowing the inner voice of the mother to guide his actions, we see how he has yet to learn the capacity to trust his own intuitive promptings.  He has yet to gain his own voice.

Is this ignorance a burden of guilt?  Perhaps it is something else. The burden  of Parsifal’s misstep guides the next two decades of his life as he searches to find entry to what he becomes locked out of.  In my read of the dynamic, the young Parsifal becomes a wounded healer in this first encounter, and in effect, through his contact with the Fisher King, he begins to carry the wound himself.

“What Ails Thee?”

The Fisher King has a perpetual wound.   If we can allow that this figure would represent an aspect the Self, we find ourselves exploring a dynamic quite similar to the one Jung explored in his Answer to Job.

Some versions of the tale note the wound is in the groin, others have it in the thigh.  In both cases the wound points toward phallic issues. ((It’s an interesting compensation for the wounds of Christ which conspicuously omit any wounding of the phallic.))  Many writers have observed the shame operates as the underbelly of narcissism where grandiosity and idealization, both exaggerated elements in the Jobian Yahweh, figure prominently.

On a collective level, that the West is wounded in the power drive is not earth shattering news.  That a healing is possible is a hopeful prognosis that has not yet been realized.

The Healing of an Archetypal  Wound

For Parsifal, the task is to give voice to the reality of the wound, not just to witness it.  We are left with a question: why would asking “what’s wrong with you” heal the wound?

To forgo the mannered discretion and speak that something is out of sorts on the archetypal level teaches us that consciousness demands relatedness.  Parsifal, like Job, need not have the answers, but the courage to step forth and address the mystery in those most difficult places, especially where they challenge collective preconceptions of perfection, idealization and grandiosity.


Delicate Passages

Delicate aspects of psyche
Iris in the Rain…

[mks_dropcap style=”letter” size=”48″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]A[/mks_dropcap]t times the therapeutic process is rough and tumble, with conflict and confrontation the main fare for sessions on end.  But at other times psychoanalysis can modulate into a delicate aria of isolated whispers, generating an intimacy laced with the mystery of splendor. I’ve found little offered in the literature regarding these delicate passages, yet my experience has been that they are not at all uncommon.  Why is that?

Perhaps these gentler  promptings of soul do not get explored in the writings on process because they do not threaten.  Perhaps these alignments signify, like experiences of the Tao, a fulfillment in manifestation that does not cry out for our interpretation.  But I also wonder if they might not speak to experiences that have yet to emerge into the collective consciousness. Consider the late arrival of shame as a recognizable and articulated affective state in the psychoanalytical literature.   It took nearly seventy-five years for it to get properly understood, named and engaged.

In his work Integrity in Depth, John Beebe offers the insight (which I paraphrase here) that shame encapsulates the most precious aspects of soul, protecting it from spoilage and defilement.  In fairy tales we encounter this image when evil spells have turned the princes into toads.   Only the right partner can come along and unlock the shackles of the spell to reveal the hidden beauty.

In some ways, it makes perfect sense that the revelation of such beauty in process remains sealed behind a hushed awe.  Yet from another perspective, the silence fails to honor the leading edge of the territory that Psyche is leading those who are wandering fearlessly into her paths. ((Much gets said about a decline in the interest in psychoanalytic work.  While understandable, it seems that in the efforts to wrestle with the emergence of the unconscious over the last century has failed to attend to the beautiful as much as it has the ugly.))

Shame, the Invisible Affect

Shame, an Archetypal Affect in Psychoanalytic Process

The presence of any of the archetypal affects helps us recognize a complex has been activated in an individual.

Affects occur usually where adaptation is weakest, and at the same time they reveal the reason for its weakness, namely a certain degree of inferiority and the existence of a lower level of personality. On this lower level with its uncontrolled or scarcely controlled emotions one . . . [is] singularly incapable of moral judgment. (Carl Jung, Aion, CW 9ii, par. 15.)

There is a hint of a judgmental attitude in this passage, for the intolerable affects are archetypal realities just like the great mother, the trickster and the messiah.  In Jung’s contempt for the affects, which many other passages also reveal, the definition of this passage can actually be turned around on him. Within a contemptuous attitude lies hidden a complex driven by shame.  Lest you find this claim shocking, it is neither new nor original.  In her book Masculine Shame, Mary Ayers has rendered portraits of both Freud and Jung and demonstrated their incapacity to carry shame, persuasively pointing out the impact of this issue on the development of psychoanalysis.

Shame, Toward a Working Definition

With this backdrop in place, I want here to explore the archetypal affect shame.  In Stewart’s theoretical synthesis of the archetypal affects he provides an interesting insight. The experience of rejection and alienation result in a dual affect: contempt/shame.  It’s as if these form the two sides of the same coin as they rip through our culture.

Similar in dynamic to sadomasochism (from a psychological perspective), contempt/shame and the disgust it engenders pervasively disrupt the functioning of consciousness on a collective level.  Racism, misogyny, homophopbia, religious and political extremism, homelessness; all types of exclusion, bullying, and disdain for others find their roots in this deeply embedded archetypal reality.

While the hatred of contempt is often overt and visible, even in the subtle signal of a slightly lifted chin while passing by a homeless individual on a city street, the wounds of the shame carrier often stay hidden in the recesses of soul.  Especially in those whose contempt is leaking out all over the place.

And shame, while somewhat on an experiential continuum with guilt, is significantly distinct from it.  Guilt arises when we have done something wrong.  Shame is rooted in the perception not that what I have done is wrong, but who I am is wrong. The alienation of all abandonment, as well as the accumulated effect of neglect and abuse of all sorts, indicate the presence of the dark tar pit of shame constellated in the unconscious.

Psychoanalysis and Shame

When working with individuals in psychoanalysis on the parental complexes, in my experience the constellation of contempt/shame is by for the most prevalent affect in the process.  Due to it’s alienating nature, shame needs to be coaxed into the field. Embodied it is often nauseating.  Counter-transferential somatic symptoms like nausea, an upset stomach and acid reflux in the analyst during session (if no other likely personal factors would give rise to these symptoms) can signal an attempt by shame to enter the process.

Working with shame is a slow difficult dance.  At an archetypal level, far beyond the storms of fear, the valleys of grief and the towering infernos of rage, the rejections of all ages fill unfathomably wide and surrounding oceans of shame.

I am a firm believer that until we collectively begin to take some responsibility for shame on the individual level, the cultural ills outlined above will continue on as unsolvable social riddles.