Friday, April 23, 2010

Everything is Illuminated in Light of the Past

How is the path of our individual lives related to the lives of our ancestors? This question has surfaced for me, in various forms, over the last several month -- perhaps I have taken note particularly because of my own process of losing my grandmother, my last grandparent, and reflecting on what it means that my life is inherently part of her legacy.

I had the fortune to see Sonu Shamadasani, editor and translator of The Red Book, lecture on Wednesday night. As part of his presentation, Sonu included some commentary on Jung's 1916 work, The Seven Sermons to the Dead. Of this work, which Jung wrote nearing the conclusion of his deep engagement with his inner figures (as are documented in The Red Book), Sonu commented boldly: "It's the dead who depend on us for their souls, for their evolution. . . . You think you're living your life, but your life is set-up by a framework of your ancestors . . . your own endeavor is one for your ancestors."

As Jung wrote in his autobiography about The Seven Sermons, "the unconscious corresponds to the mythic land of the dead, the land of the ancestors" (1963, p. 191), stating later that after writing the Sermons the dead became for him "ever more the voices of the Unanswered, Unresolved, and Unredeemed" (p. 192).

The notion that the dead may depend on us for their evolution, not exclusively the other way around, has been starkly illustrated for me recently in a pop culture TV show. The new NBC documentary series Who Do You Think You Are? tracks a famous person as he or she researches his or her ancestry through a variety of archival means. As each individual uncovers the history of his or her family line, uncanny "coincidences" reveal themselves. Each episode brings forward visceral and emotional realizations for the individual exploring their lineage in regards to how they are connected -- in ways not fully understood -- to a lineage of people stretching sometimes centuries into the past. Sarah Jessica Parker, who stared in the film Hocus Pocus and whose brother stars in the play Wicked on Broadway, discovers in her journey that one of the two ancestors she finds was the final woman accused in the Salem witch trials; she narrowly escaped with her life as the courts were disbanded before her sentencing. Sarah is visible shaken by this discovery, mourning this woman's life and tragedy centuries later. One gets the feeling that the ancestor sent her on this discovery so that she could be remembered. Meanwhile, Emmitt Smith, a member of the NFL Hall of Fame, discovers in his explorations with an emotional awe that the number he has worn on his back each game since college, 22, is also the number of the book in a historical library where the information about his family's slave origins is found. Finally, for Matthew Broderick, the discovery of a great-great-grandfather named Robert who fought and died as a Union soldier in the Civil War drew forth emotion as he played the role of Robert, a Union soldier, in a Civil War era film. Moreover, this discovery was also the discovery of a previously unknown soldier with a unmarked grave; his great-great-grandfather's name is now known to all.

It is remarkable to observe this journey and see that each individual tracking their genetic past is in visible mourning for the lost relatives they never knew, as well as overwhelmed with a sense that these individuals have wanted to be known. Each individual expressed, and the sentiment was palpable, that they felt they were drawn to discover their ancestors stories, and that they themselves felt more whole knowing the past of these relatives they never knew.

Finally, this same theme was highlighted for me last night while watching the film Everything is Illuminated, in which the grandson of a Jewish man who narrowly escaped death in WWII, returns to the Ukraine to find the village where his grandfather had grown-up. His grandfather had a young wife before he left, a wife who was killed by the German soldiers. After discovering a wealth of previously unknown history of the massacre in his grandfather's village, the narrator comments on the previously mysterious journey of the grandson: "Everything," he says,"is illuminated in light of the past."

Photography copyright 2004, Satya Doyle Byock.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating thoughts and linkages, Satya. I really like your blog.

    ~ Cynthia