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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : An Anthology From (and About) the Soul : SOUL: AN ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE SPIRIT, Readings from Socrates to Ray Charles; edited by Phil Cousineau . HarperSanFrancisco $18, 288 pages.

March 02, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

S oul is a four-letter word that carries a crushing accumulation of metaphorical baggage, and Phil Cousineau ponders virtually all its meanings in "Soul: An Archaeology of the Spirit," an audacious but rewarding anthology of poetry, song, fairy tale, meditation, reminiscence, disputation and confession that spans a few millennia of human civilization.

Cousineau, biographer of myth-master Joseph Campbell, set himself the task of collecting everything he could find on the subject of the soul and offering it up as "a collage of sub-atomic word traces of the soul's movement through us and through the world." The whole enterprise is intended to be--and is --inspiring, often mind-blowing, sometimes even a little scary.

"To probe the images of the soul as the vital force, the source of consciousness, the persistence of things, the core individuality, the depth dimension, the raw, blue rhythm of life," writes Cousineau by way of introduction, "is to suddenly, with Lear, 'take upon us the mystery of things, as if we were God's spies.' "

No single unifying principle can be discerned in Cousineau's selections, which ricochet wildly from Genesis to Gnostic creation myths to the Second Khanda Upanishad; from West African folk tales to Dervish poetry to the verses of T.S. Eliot; from Aristotle on "The Essential Whatness" to Tracy Kidder on "The Soul of the Computer"; from Cicero to William Blake to Ramakrishna; from James Joyce to Eldridge Cleaver to Pablo Neruda; from Abelard and Heloise to H.P. Blavatsky to Raymond Carver and Alice Walker.

Cousineau's reach is intentionally (and appropriately) cosmic, and "Soul" is a mixed bag of spiritual yearning, theological speculation and intellectual curiosity. To the anticipated criticism that his book is a multicultural and metaphysical hodgepodge, Cousineau simply shrugs and says: Here it is, take it, and make of it what you will.

"Frankly, I'm haunted by vexing questions: Why do I hear Gregorian chant, hell-for-leather sermons, and the whiskey-and-smoke voice of Ray Charles whenever I hear the very word soul ?" he muses. "Why does this cavernous universe within me resound like a cathedral organ reverberating with Bach, the three-tone chords of Tibetan monks, and sometimes, in the heat of the night, the chilling opening chords of Percy Sledge's soul-piercing 'When a Man Loves a Woman'?"

As if to show us exactly what he means, Cousineau has selected fragments that ponder soul in all its disparate and sometimes unrelated meanings. St. Teresa of Avila fancies the soul to be an interior castle fashioned of diamond; Descartes insists that the "material soul" is seated in the pineal gland of the human brain; the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow rhapsodizes on the human voice as "the organ of the soul." And so we are hardly surprised when Cousineau throws in a riff on soul music by African American music critic Al Young.

"Was soul something like a breeze," he ponders, "something you couldn't picture or grab but could only feel like you could the wind off the Gulf when the day cooled down. . . ?"

Cousineau also considers Bruno Bettelheim's argument that the mistranslation of Freud's work into English unfairly concealed and distorted Freud's interest in "that unknown nether world in which, according to ancient myths, the souls of men dwell." And Jung, of course, was unabashed in his celebration of the human soul.

"Why should the simple mind deny . . . that the 'soul' lives in a realm beyond the body?" Jung wrote. "I must admit that I can see as little nonsense in this so-called superstition as in the findings of research regarding heredity or the basic instincts."

Often enough, the readings have less to do with the soul in its classical sense than with ideas and experiences that we know by other names: love, comfort, inspiration, longing, remorse. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, for example, recalls how the luminous awareness of his wife's love kept him alive in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, and psychologist Sue Nathan reveals the shattering emotional repercussions that attended her decision to abort her fourth pregnancy.

"Committed to life, not death, having always celebrated my fertility and joy in giving birth, I fell into an abyss of despair from which I could see no exit," writes Nathan, somehow echoing the confessional literature of the Middle Ages as she recalls "a crisis at the deepest center of my being--a crisis of soul--unlike any other experience of suffering I have encountered."

And, significantly, Cousineau includes a passage by Albert Schweitzer in which the good doctor invokes the soul as a touchstone of moral behavior: "You know of the disease in Central Africa called sleeping sickness," he wrote. "There also exists a sleeping sickness of the soul."

Here, I think, is the essence of what Cousineau hopes to accomplish with his book. If there is a common theme in the crazy quilt of "Soul," it is a moral and spiritual wake-up call, a massive antidote to what Wallace Stegner called the "soul-sickness" of contemporary world.

Against what Cousineau correctly characterizes as the "corrosive loneliness, vague purposelessness, and hall-of-mirrors narcissism" of late 20th-Century human existence, Cousineau offers a bracing and yet somehow intoxicating brew intended to revive us and fortify us.

"In a postmodern world of instantaneous revisionism of all we hold scared," writes Cousineau in defense of his whole marvelous enterprise, "soul is an existential anchor for the drifting ship of awareness."

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