The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Between Matter and Spirit: Psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis on the Substance of What We Are

Between Matter and Spirit: Psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis on the Substance of What We Are

We live as cells winged with sentience, filaments with feeling — creatures tasked with comprehending the ceaseless dialogue between our materiality and our spirituality, tasked with living it. “Blessed be you, mighty matter,” the French theologian and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote as he set out to reconcile the two. A generation after him, the poetic physicist Richard Feynman marveled at our inheritance as “atoms with consciousness… matter with curiosity.” In the age of AI — this precarious prosthesis of our consciousness — the question of what makes us human, a question of matter and spirit, rattles us with ever more disquieting urgency.

The psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis (October 23, 1915–June 14, 2007) brings an uncommonly lyrical perspective to this eternal perplexity in his 1975 book On Not Knowing How to Live (public library).

I see my soul reflected in Nature by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Wheelis — who anchored his worldview in the insistence that life “escapes reason” — considers the abiding relationship between matter and spirit:

We come into being as a slight thickening at the end of a long thread. Cells proliferate, become an excrescence, assume the shape of a man. The end of the thread now lies buried within, shielded, inviolate. Our task is to bear it forward, pass it on. We flourish for a moment, achieve a bit of singing and dancing, a few memories we would carve in stone, then we wither, twist out of shape. The end of the thread lies now in our children, extends back through us, unbroken, unfathomably into the past. Numberless thickenings have appeared on it, have flourished and have fallen away as we now fall away. Nothing remains but the germ-line. What changes to produce new structures as life evolves is not the momentary excrescence but the hereditary arrangements within the thread.

We are carriers of spirit. We know not how nor why nor where. On our shoulders, in our eyes, in anguished hands through unclear realm, into a future unknown, unknowable, and in continual creation, we bear its full weight. Depends it on us utterly, yet we know it not. We inch it forward with each beat of heart, give to it the work of hand, of mind. We falter, pass it on to our children, lay out our bones, fall away, are lost, forgotten. Spirit passes on, enlarged, enriched, more strange, complex.

Wheelis revisits this manifold complexity in his essay “Spirit” for Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett’s 1981 collection The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (public library):

Spirit is the traveler, passes now through the realm of man*. We did not create spirit, do not possess it, cannot define it, are but the bearers. We take it from unmourned and forgotten forms, carry it through our span, will pass it on, enlarged or diminished, to those who follow. Spirit is the voyager, man is the vessel.

Spirit creates and spirit destroys. Creation without destruction is not possible, destruction without creation feeds on past creation, reduces form to matter, tends toward stillness. Spirit creates more than it destroys (though not in every season, nor even every age, hence those meanderings, those turnings back, wherein the longing of matter for stillness triumphs in destruction) and this preponderance of creation makes for the overall steadiness of course.

Art by Francisco de Holanda, 1573. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Returning to the indelible materiality of our lives, Wheelis traces back the elemental roots of our sentience and projects forward its most realized internal reality:

From primal mist of matter to spiraled galaxies and clockwork solar systems, from molten rock to an earth of air and land and water, from heaviness to lightness to life, sensation to perception, memory to consciousness — man now holds a mirror, spirit sees itself. Within the river currents turn back, eddies whirl. The river itself falters, disappears, emerges, moves on. The general course is the growth of form, increasing awareness, matter to mind consciousness. The harmony of man and nature is to be found in continuing this journey along its ancient course toward greater freedom and awareness.

Complement with physicist Alan Lightman’s wonderful notion of spiritual materialism and Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger on the relationship between quantum physics and Eastern spirituality, then revisit the science of how a cold cosmos kindles the wonder of consciousness.

Published June 18, 2023




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