“Nightmares of Totality” Book review in Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche
“Through exceptional imagery and strong writing, Salman offers the idea that “Our [human] imagination’s propensity to create totalities has a particularly mutable character: it disappears from view as we live within its bounds . . . ” (61). Indeed, within the global context of contemporary technologies, as detailed in (her book), where is any center?”
“…the book shines…the strong emphasis on imagination and imagery is one of the powerhouses of her argument… which is to come to terms with imagination and its dreams of totality…”
“…in her final chapter, which contains a subheading of “Taking the Medicine,” is an excellent set of steps for delving into the potential sense of living in a meaningless, or uncentered world… Salman provides an exceptional journey detailing how we seek to explain such a world in different ways, by drawing on history, philosophy, psychology, and art.”
Nightmares of Totality? by BRIAN DONOVAN
A look through news media, on an almost daily basis, brings to explicit consciousness a sense of imminent human, and planetary, peril. Issues relating to economic collapse, and speculative recovery, may dominate such discourse, but other concerns are equally, though perhaps not so prominently, brought to mind. These include climate\ chaos, resource depletion, species extinction, strong and contagious viruses, and a sense of a loss of hope. Such loss of hope may be akin to the discovery of nothing at the center of our existence.
Such a feeling might be illustrated through personal experience. In the late-1980s, while living in San Francisco and working in its financial district, there was a major earthquake. While the public media, radio locally and nationally, contained stories of damage and destruction, there was little damage from my personal vantage point. I phoned my father in Boston who sounded astonished I was even alive. He had been watching the news on television and feared San Francisco was either in flames, sinking into the bay, or both.
This is the context Sherry Salman seeks to explore in her recently published book, Dreams of Totality. In her introduction, Salman notes,
“No matter where we look, or where we try to place our feet, no matter how connected we are to how much we love, fault lines are opening everywhere. Even the planet itself appears to be coming undone” (2013, 5). The title of this book comes from Jung’s response to a question from Miguel Serrano. “I believe that the thing I call the self is a dream of totality” (Serrano 1966, 50, as cited in Salman 2013, 3).
Dreams of Totality: Definition and Examples
Before reviewing this book in detail, it might be fruitful to define what Salman means when she writes about “dreams of totality.” Drawing on the quotation from Jung, Salman makes the suggestion that this is actually “a veiled way of saying that there are no totalities or conditions of wholeness, whether of self, of man-gods, or of anything else. To think otherwise is an illusion, a dream in the sense of a wish” (2013, 3).
Salman proposes that the process Jung was referring to (in his reply to Serrano) “is one of the ways our imagination creates and imposes cohesion on our experience and helps us to adapt to changes in ourselves and to a changing environment” (3). Elaborating on this point, she suggests that this work of imagination “seems to work to make things whole. Humanity has always fashioned these dreams of totality, visions of utopias and dystopias, of perfect worlds and apocalyptic end-times . . . ” (3). These dreams of the human imagination, Salman notes, occur “ . . . within us in response to distress, and they appear without fail during times of conflict and change—with a do-or-die, beautiful, horrific, or even holy-feeling numinosity” (4).
Although it may be cultural bias that leads Salman to consider such acts of imagination something human beings have “always fashioned,” it is hard to deny that, in times of distress, meaning takes on new, and more urgent, connotations for all of us. In the contemporary social, economic, and ecological world, such distress does, indeed, suggest urgency. Salman notes that “when a dream of totality loses its charm it ceases to feel like an external truth and slips into the relative time of history and culture—and the truths of a moment in time always have ragged edges and missing pieces” (9).
Examples of contemporary dreams of totality that are proposed are such socio- political notions as globalization (18), adoles- cent love (132), and notions of sacrifice (149). Such a broad range of possible dreams of totality suggests the depth of content within this book. Such dreams, which appear part of, but somewhat more than, ideologies, do appear to be strong within the contemporary human psyche.
Structure of the Book
The book contains three main sections. In the first, Salman looks at imagination and the ways in which totality has been imagined over human time and space. The second focuses more specifically on “dreaming of totality” and explores psychological, then social perspectives of such dreaming, before explicating what might be referred to as “psychosocial impera- tives” of living in contemporary Western societies. The third, and concluding, section would seem to offer a new “re-visioning”
of totality in relation to contemporary society. In particular, this final section looks at technology and the notion of masking (and unmasking) such “dreams of totality” in which we live today. In addition, this final section attempts to define a prescription, or, as stated in the book’s introduction, “the medicine of totality when there’s nothing at the center” (13).
Imagination and Totality
The opening section of this book contains two chapters, each titled provocatively and respect- ively, “Womb and Tomb” and “Poison and Panacea.” Such titles are reflective of the moves Salman makes in introducing concepts of dreams of totality. And both of these chapters delve deeply into imagination (which is the source of such dreams) via psychological as well as historical thinking, but also using extremely beautiful and relevant images, including mandalas drawn from Jung’s Red Book.
“Womb and Tomb” is a broad ranging journey into looking at totality and how human beings at different times, including contemporary times, have imagined totality. Salman opens this chapter by suggesting that “dreams of totality have punctuated the story of humanity’s creative imagination. They are the stuff of culture and cultures . . . ” (18). Perhaps what is being suggested here is that Salman’s dreams of totality are creation and sustaining myths we as a species create.
The evolution of dreams of totality in this chapter focuses on globalization (which critical social theory would likely suggest is just a continuation of earlier forms of imperialism and colonialism, with accompanying and related problems). Salman comments, “A dream of totality like globalization is probably a variation on . . . an archetypal image or integration network . . . ” (20). This focus leads Salman to suggest that “dreaming of totalities like globalization is a property of the psyche, not a metaphysical construct of oneness and unity or an impulse towards perfection or an empirical fact” (21).
This chapter uses this notion of globaliza- tion as a point of departure for a journey into circular imagination, via a sequence of sections that explore the human need for such ideas as totality (including, but prior to, globalization). Salman illustrates this idea by using images such as mandalas, historic stone circles, and paintings from Rubens and Rousseau, among others. It is these striking images, along with Salman’s theoretical development, that make a powerful impression on the reader.
Such circular imagination, and related magic circles, take the theoretical journey into a breaking of the circle. This seems to be at the heart of this book. As we have dreams of totality today based on global technologies and a sense of permanent connection with anyone anywhere, there is the mutual break with not only human society (the so-called digital divide that is likely larger than any research suggests), but also the rest of nature.
An odd juxtaposition, but fitting in such a social, and global, context, is the location of three images: di Paolo’s Creation of the World, a surrealistic depiction of Down at the Rapture with George [Bush], and da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (45 – 49) The progression of these three images takes us from creation to destruction to circular representation of the human being. Salman notes that her development looks at the relationship of magic circles (via imagery) and numeric patterns and, inevitably, leads to further Jungian mandalas.
Through exceptional imagery and strong writing, Salman concludes by offering the idea that “Our [human] imagination’s propensity to create totalities has a particular mutable character: it disappears from view as we live within its bounds . . . ” (61). Indeed, within the global context of contemporary technol- ogies, as detailed in the chapter, where is any center?
Being psychologically “lost” without such a center leads Salman to search for a cure (a center?). The subsequent chapter, titled “Poison and Panacea,” introduces the concept of pharmakon. Drawing on Plato, but bringing along Derrida, Salman explores the concept through popular and religious imagery, suggesting that “the pharmakon of totality falls under the provenance of manipulation and black magic” (74). In some ways, it is possible to construe this to hint that our cures are as imaginary as our totalities.
The chapter concludes with Salman stressing, “One of the most human things we face into now is our relational responsibility for our imaginary creations” (86). What Salman appears to suggest is that our imaginations are not individual. Rather, our totalities, and any proposed cures, are parts of our collective imagination—the imagination that has us, as individuals in the context of Western society, see a form of “reality” constructed within our psyche. This leads to the second section of the book.
Totality in Today’s World
The second section, entitled “Of Human Things,” explores psychological and social aspects of the current world, again from the perspective of dreams of totality. The two chapters in this section move back and forth temporally as well as spatially through their use of theory and imagery.
In the chapter “Psychology’s Dreams,” Salman locates imagination in the human psyche and notes, “Our sensibility of totality was first experienced through the mysterious actions of spirits and gods . . . Later the man gods were drawn together into the mono- theistic gods . . . [to today’s western world, in which] . . . the one God [is] incarnated as a man, the dream of totality in which we still live . . . ” (92) As she shifts into psychological perspectives, it is noteworthy that Bosch’s The Creation of the World is used, which, in many ways, reflects the two hemispheres of the human brain.
This chapter looks at hallucinations (as linked to imagination) and psychopomps (“images, fantasies, and actual persons that have guided us into the terra incognita of the mythopoetic mind” ) before looking historically at the development of Jung’s thinking. This chapter is especially strong on helping the neophyte reader of Jung traverse the depths of his work.
The following chapter, titled “Society’s Dreams,” shifts to the collective conscious and unconscious sense of totality. Salman comments that this move from individual to collective takes us “into the heart of darkness of lived experience, into the shock of both internal recognition and recognition of the ever-present other” (123). This chapter traces human social perspectives of dreams of totality against time and space. Along with imagery, Salman brings together thinking about utopia and dystopia, and suggests that both of these “are often the children of fundamentalist psychology” (141). Dystopia, on one level, could be the product of a psychopathy, but is not utopia (considered as a destination rather than a journey) a quite different aim? Arthur Morgan’s (1946) reading of utopias would suggest that such thinking (and writings) are generally drawn from actual historical societies with more “perfect worlds” than our own. While dated, and somewhat limited in scope, Morgan does offer a quite different perspective on the human imagination.
This middle section of the book concludes with a look at “Sacrifice” and suggests that “there seems to be a relationship—if bloody and costly—between dreaming of totality and sacrificial action” (Salman 2013, 149). This interesting discussion is depicted through exemplars of history, philosophy, and poetry rather than imagery. It could be suggested that within sacrifice, we have significant connec- tions to imagery in seeking out the human soul. Totality is again seen as having positive and negative connotations. It is both of these aspects that are dealt with in the final section.
Re-visioning, and Prescription for, Totality
Having detailed dreams of totality in the opening two sections of the book, the final section focuses on “Nothing at the Center.” It is here, I feel, that the book shines. Salman begins with the statement, “The vehicles that now carry our projection of the new world order [our current dreams of totality?] are our twenty-first-century technological creations— cyberspace and virtuality. We cling for dear life to our laptops and smartphones . . . ” (173 – 174). Though one could wonder if “we cling for dear life” or “we are addicted to sad living.”
Salman paraphrases Marshall McLuhan’s well-known phrase, “Is the medium the message or the massage?” (174). In many ways, issues of both message and massage arise when reaching back to the positive and negative aspects of the dreams of totality introduced earlier in the book. The unfolding of this thinking allows Salman to develop the same aspects of technology. She comments, “Experience in the virtual world is simul- taneously real and imaginary—things arealmost or nearly real” (175). It is rare to see such explicit critique of technology that appears universally accepted yet not universally available. Such a critique is most welcome.
The lack of a center comes to the fore in the use of transgression and technologies that Salman develops. If she is correct in her assertion that “[t]he ethical dilemmas posed by masking in virtual life come into high relief if we look at the ways that virtuality is used as a contempor- ary confessional” (180), then what might the consequences be? Indeed, if the Internet is increasingly being used as a confessional, one needs wonder what is the center?
The concluding chapter offers recommendations for resolution in the absence of any center of life. She suggests, “It can often feel that we are also operating with delusions, dreaming benighted dreams of totality in response to an overwhelmingly fragmented world or just giving up” (189). Salman’s approach, in contrast to these options, is to “come to terms with imagination and the dreams of totality” (190). This returns the reader to considering dreams of totality, or how we make sense of the social world around us, which is drawn from imagination. The strong emphasis on imagination and the imagery that buttresses this view is one of the real powerhouses of her argument.
“The Rx,” which is the title of the final chapter, explores a set of self-reflective tasks that probe issues of reality in the social and psychological realms (meaning both the conscious and unconscious selves). She provides the beginning of a road map to explore how one might learn to struggle in the absence of any center. But there is the sense here that Salman’s center of life is purely, consciously or unconsciously, human. That notwithstanding, her final chapter, which contains a subheading of “Taking the Medicine,” is an excellent set of steps for delving into the potential sense of living in a meaningless, or uncentered world.
To conclude, perhaps it is best to query what, precisely, “nothing at the center” might mean. Certainly there is a distinct loss of personal (social or psychological) meaning within the contemporary world. This might be seen in a contemporary social issue. Whereas one could repair a car or a tool in past days, this is no longer the case. Today, computers and the electronic/digital technologies embedded in both cars and tools are beyond personal repair. Indeed, they are almost beyond personal comprehension. If an issue such as repairing cars or tools challenges our understanding, what might that suggest about our psyches? Salman provides an exceptional journey detailing how we seek to explain such a world in different ways, by drawing on history, philosophy, psychology, and art. We are left with the sense that dreams of totality and, indeed, definitions of center, have, for quite a long time, been an issue for human beings. Her prescription is delving deeper still into our collective psyches and imaginations, and she offers us a roadmap to do just that.
One concern with Salman’s book is the scope of focus. Early on, Salman notes that “[t]he ‘we’ in this book are Westerners and those living in developing societies, and we are also Americans . . . ” (2013, 7). This strikes me as being very much in line with the label used by Henrich, et al., in their 2010 essay “The Weirdest People in the World?” Within that essay, the acronym WEIRD is used to indicate the bias detected in psychological research: “Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic” (Henrich, et al. 2010, 61). It is hoped that looking at living without a center might be based more broadly. Is it possible that there is no center from a purely human psychological, or even sociological, perspective, but that ecologically there is a center: life on Earth? Or, might such a thought-provoking approach, used by ecopsychologist David Abrams (1993), hearken to another dimension of totality?
Abrams, David. 1993. The spell of the sensuous: Perception and language in a more-than- human world. New York: Vintage Books.
Henrich, Joseph, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. 2010. The weirdest people in the world? Behavioural and Brain Sciences 33: 61–135.
Morgan, Arthur. 1946. Nowhere was somewhere: How history makes utopias and how utopias make history. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Salman, Sherry. 2013. Dreams of totality: Where we are when there’s nothing at the center. New Orleans: Spring Journal Books.
Serrano, Miguel. 1966. C.G. Jung and Herman Hesse: A record of two friendships. New York: Schocken Books.
BRIAN DONOVAN, MED, PhD, (Dublin) lectures in the Schools of Education, Trinity College, Dublin (Ireland), and the National College for Art and Design. His research interests include educational linguistics; ecological and trans-species pedagogies; and, increasingly, Jungian thinking on teaching, learning, and aging. In addition, Brian lives on a smallholding in the Irish midlands, growing much of his own food. He shares life with his partner, two fostered donkeys, and two dogs. Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dreams of Totality: Where We Are When There’s Nothing at the Center by Sherry Salman is an in- depth look at how we see the world through the lens of totality. By looking at dreams of totality throughout human history, this book invokes us to consider the positive and negative dimensions of that lens. Totality is explored through Jungian depth psychology and imagery. This book brings us on a journey to the absence of center and introduces steps to probe what we consider reality—totality or center.