Imagine Persephone coming up to the surface of the earth. She has done this so many times that no one, not even her own mother, bothers to check if she’s really back. Life goes on as planned: spring rituals, flowers blossoming, no one notices her. It might have been a few months or years. It might have been entire geological eras – she feels like a rock herself. She will have to learn all over again how to touch the ground, how to bend and smell the flowers, how to be something other than earth: basically, how to be alive.
Imagine Persephone deciding to stay on the surface of the earth. Not to come back (or go forth, where is she really coming from?). She can’t go back to Greece – she’s been a foreigner far too long. She can’t go back to the Underworld – after all, she’s decided on being alive. She has nowhere to go, no world to be part of, she can only go to the core of living. But what is life, Persephone wonders, stretched out on the cliffs, indistinguishable from the rocks, like the back of a prehistoric animal.
There are other fossils there, some of them influential creatures that mark shifts in geological formations, icons of geological times, comfortable in their status quo. They don’t make her feel less alone, just inadequate. She hasn’t done anything of importance, apart from being responsible for winter, which was not even her own making. She has always been just a helpless tool of her mother and husband.
CHORUS: She’d better go to therapy.
Imagine Persephone trying to be alive (or in therapy): a fossil trying to regain a living body. Persephone, we presume, will opt for movement therapy. She will first try to just move, although she hopes she will eventually start dancing. Her extremities act independently, pulling her in different directions, her joints releasing the weight of institutions. She might feel certain pains and aches. (In human years Persephone should be middle-aged by now.)
Eventually, she may come to the conclusion that being able to walk gracefully under gravity is enough of an achievement. After all, she has just quit being a queen and a goddess, broken the spell of the pomegranate seed, left her children behind. She has abandoned the institution of daughterhood (the institution of motherhood has been monopolized by her own mother), the institution of marriage and the institution of death, among others. She might just as well brush off the institution of healing and regeneration. It would be just her and life. No organized rituals, no institutionalized well-being.
Life must have felt like a revolution: mighty forces fusing the whole of existence into one: the underlying principle of rocks – playing at stability, with the sheer insanity of meadows – buzzing and changing with every new wave of light... It is spring. Life is a revolution.
Eventually life, as well as our presence in it, goes on Days gradually start to feel as heavy as building blocks. Something has to be built, or they will come crashing down on her. One cannot break free from everything, one can certainly not break free from freedom. Persephone might be crushed by the plight of pure repetition. Or it might be that the Underworld will start calling for her. Her children. The pomegranate seed. (It has by now fermented into guilt.)
CHORUS: Eventually one must learn how to deal with life.
In his recent essay addressing the current pandemic, “L’idolâtrie de la vie”, the French mathematician and philosopher Olivier Rey examines the historic evolution of the very definition of life:
In the dictionaries of the 17th and 18th centuries, life was defined as “the union of soul and body”. From the end of the 18th century onwards, things change: life becomes “the state of animate beings insofar as they have in them the principle of sensations and movement” (“Dictionnaire de l'Académie française“, 1795), “the state of activity of organized substance” (“Littré“, 1863), and today “the ensemble of phenomena and essential functions manifested from birth til death and characteristic of living beings” (“Trésor de la langue française“, 1994). All the while that life has been rendered “physiological”, some memories have remained of the ancient interpretations. In the background we can hear resonating, even if muted, the biblical words of God telling Moses: “Choose life”; of Jesus affirming: “I am life.” As a result, the amalgam between the expressed and repressed meaning something strange occurs: the adoration of “the ensemble of phenomena and essential functions manifested from birth til death and characteristic of living beings.”
Rey sees in this idealization of physiological life a curious merge between a life of ideals (for which people used to die) and today’s obsession with perpetuating life by controlling bodily functions. The worship of physiological activity as life becomes the legitimation of contemporary governance: a government’s highest goal is to preserve life at all costs. Not some idealized form of living, worth dying for, but the pure totality of physiological functions that makes us technically alive.
There are, however, two other elements that are worth noting in these definitions.
The first one, and it is most obvious in the last dictionary entry, is the circularity of the argument. There is a kind of tautology that explains life simply as what is pertaining to a living being. While the characteristics of this being are reduced to physiological aspects like functions and phenomena, rather than body and soul, the mystery of life remains untouched. Not only the body and soul but also activity, movement, sensations are all eliminated from the definition of life. A living being is a tautological being, trapped in performing the unexplained phenomenon of being alive.
The second observation is that life is described as a highly organized, even institutionalized, phenomenon. Life is a principle, an organized activity.
If life is a sort of institutionalized activity – an organization which strives to maintain the equilibrium and continuity of both its elements and its totality – then any revolutionary act or institutional disturbance is going against the very definition of life.
Let’s take as an example a less scientific reference, the interpretation of illness as a bodily symptom of emotional and spiritual conflict. Illness reveals an internal conflict, it is believed, most importantly it expresses in various forms our inability to accept existence its entirety, with in its dark and light sides. Our harmonious presence in this totality requires a free flow between the inside and outside, us and others, the one and the whole. In another, larger perspective, this means reconciling the opposites in which we perceive the world. In the language of spirituality this is called love.
In this ecology of love, illnesses like cancer and AIDS, for example, are seen in the light of the conflictual relationship between the individual and the whole (society, Earth, the universal interdependence and oneness of everything…). A cancer cell is a rebellious cell which refuses to play its strictly assigned role, it refuses to serve “the society” of the body. It is a cell that strives for individual freedom at the expense of the whole. Cancer is the most dramatic manifestation of an “anti-institutional” behaviour on a cellular level, which is true for all illnesses to a different extent. In the definition of life as “the ensemble of phenomena characteristic of living beings”, the “ensemble” is the primary condition of life.
Persephone must now decide what to do with her revolution and what to do with life – two things, we already know could not co-exist. She doesn’t have a lot of options. If she has properly learned the lesson of totality, she should go back to her old life and accept her role as an institution in herself, of life itself! – always circulating between light and darkness, between the upper and under worlds. She might also be tempted to invent a new institution, on the ruins of her rejection of the existing institutions (there are numerous historical examples of that). As a last resort, the institution of life as a “totality of phenomena” also gives her also the option to die as a mortal. Or else, to fall in love.
CHORUS: To fall in love with the institution over and over again!
The character of Persephone was first developed for a text on the work of Keira Greene for LUX.
- Olivier Rey: “L’idolâtrie de la vie“, Gallimard, 2020 (translation mine).
- “L’ensemble” in the French original.
- I am following here more specifically the book “The Healing Power of Illness: Understanding What Your Symptoms Are Telling You“ by Thorwald Dethlefsen and Rüdiger Dahlke (originally published in German in 1983), probably the best known treatise on the subject for Bulgarian readers.