On craft — a conversation with Thomas Moore

2020 | 2 | "We need to be more material, not less."

In this edition, I’m delighted to share a recent exchange with Thomas Moore. To quote from Moore’s website: “The interior of things longs for expression in your words and images.” I think that’s a fine segue into our discussion about craft and soul-craft.

My plan with interviews such as this one is to try keep to a maximum of five or six questions. As with everything psychological there’s always so much more to be investigated, but I don’t wan’t to overtax either my interlocutor or you, the reader. Hopefully, these brief forays on various subjects will stimulate further exploration.

Thomas Moore is the author of the number one New York Times bestseller Care of the Soul. He has written twenty-four other books about bringing soul to personal life and culture, deepening spirituality, humanising medicine, finding meaningful work, imagining sexuality with soul and doing religion in a fresh way. In his youth he was a Catholic monk and studied music composition. He has a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Syracuse University and was a university professor for a number of years. He is also a psychotherapist influenced mainly by C. G. Jung and James Hillman. In his work he brings together spirituality, mythology, depth psychology and the arts, emphasising the importance of images and imagination.

CR: You said that you see William Morris, one of the leading figures of the Arts and Crafts movement, as one of Carl Jung’s antecedents. Jung was certainly amongst other things a craftsman, but what do you mean exactly?

TM: If you have ever been in the presence of actual William Morris wallpaper, you know that it has overwhelming beauty and power. Here was a man who wanted to restore soul to his society—and he used that word—and how did he do it? By making extraordinary wallpaper. Using ordinary materials for deep and potent effect on people and the world is the essence of magic, in a deep sense. He used images from nature primarily, and so tapped into nature for its healing power. This again is the essence of magic and close to what Jung tried to do, as well. So it isn’t that the two were interested in craft but that they were both seeking therapeutic effectiveness for the world. Morris once said that he wanted to bring new life to the house and then to books. In fact, he did make special, artful and powerful books, just as Jung did with his Red Book. I place them both in a historical line that includes Marsilio Ficino, Abbot Trithemius, Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, John Dee, Robert Fludd and eventually W. B. Yeats. All people who used the powers of nature to have a therapeutic effect on the world.

CR: Archetypally we are in Hephaestus’ workshop here. It’s interesting to think of ugliness and lameness and rejection — and all the things the myths tells us about this divine craftsman — as the material of psychotherapy, which is a sort of smithy for the soul, isn’t it? More than that, this runty god by dint of his capacity for skilful transformation turns out to be ever so respected: he even weds one of the three Graces, or, in one version, the goddess of beauty, Aphrodite.

TM: Hephaestus is a mythic image for working the soul and the world. His myth is not entirely inward, although it is that. It is about making the things of the world in ways that renders them beautiful and alive. In the Iliad he makes a shield for Achilles at the request of the hero’s mother, and on the shield is a depiction of every aspect of human culture. In other words, this craftsperson, described as dirty and sweaty, gives image to all of human activity. Through his work we have the basis of artistic reflection. Practical things become potent images. In Jungian and Archetypal psychology we see images as the presentation of psyche or soul. Therefore the work of Hephaestus’ craft is a physical psychotherapy, or care of soul. William Morris and Jung knew, better than most, how the practical world can reveal the soul and stir the imagination. Vases with mythic figures on them, chairs in animal shape, and so on. But our daily things of the home are also images of the soul, especially if we make and select them with psychological sensitivity and imagination. Soul is not an abstraction. You bring it into life through making things with imagination and art.

CR: Indeed, the Greek root word for poetry, poiein, means “making”. But this kind of making isn’t dictated by the bottom line. It’s more a case of, as the sociologist Richard Sennett defines craft: “the desire to do something well, concretely, for its own sake.” It’s funny, we have lots of things, but we don’t have much material consciousness. I think of Hephaestus’ hands as helping the other Olympians exist in three dimensions by way of cups, jewellery, shields, et cetera. He rounds them out, whereas our industrial and post-industrial processes separate the head and the devalued hand, and so we don’t really “grasp” anything, and the disembodied head suffers. Hephaestus, handicrafts — creative labour of the sort William Morris was advocating as the basis for socialism — are all beyond marginal now, albeit something like the simulacrum of “craft brewing” is residual evidence, I suppose, for the fantasy we might still harbour.

TM: Yes, these thoughts are very much in line with my views on getting spirit, soul and body together, for one thing. You can’t get to the spirit realm by ignoring the material. Just the opposite! If that is what you are doing, then the spirit you find is a defence against matter, and that is not real. You need to see that the physical world of which we are a part is also the realm of spirit. One of my favourite examples of this is the work of Paul Sellers, an English woodworker who not only offers brilliant, slow handworked wood projects but also reflections on life from that point of view. Woodworking has made him a source of wisdom. Hephaestus and Sophia?

James Hillman often talked about Aphrodite as a goddess of the material and beauty, citing Plotinus, who says that the world is full of Aphrodites. This beauty is a full, impressive (impressing) presence of the material world in all its spiritual beauty. Beauty is a route to spirit. Plotinus refers to beauty throughout the Enneads, which are profound reflections on soul-making.

Another way of looking at it, one that I have been writing about for many years, is that materialism is a sign that we are not material enough. It is a symptom showing us what we need. We need to be more material, not less. Being embodied more fully and living in a more material world would perhaps save the planet and keep us moral and communal. As it is, we are suicidal, mainly because we don’t want the limitations and challenges of making a beautiful material world.

CR: Martin Heiddeger said of technology, as opposed to craft (techne), that it refuses “to let earth be an earth”. To make his point he juxtaposed a waterwheel with a hydroelectric power dam. The soul appears contemplative and an end in itself (the river discloses itself, to stay with Heiddeger’s image), while unbridled materialism and unbalanced spirituality is restless, always seeking means and potentials. Is it because the soul is ‘a third thing’ that it inclines towards a recognition of limits, or, better put, “the virtue in the material”? That’s another of Sennett’s phrases.

TM: Many years ago I was advised not to get in the business of deciding what has soul and what doesn’t. I can examine an object and point out elements that appear to me to be in need of soul or are particularly soulful, but even that is probably not fruitful. A computer, for example, in itself is neither soulful or not. Email, despised by some, seems to me to foster soul by allowing people to communicate well and frequently in a steady conversation. That seems soulful in general to me. I have always thought that conversation is a particularly soulful way for people to talk to each other, compared perhaps to lecturing and listening, though even that can have its soulful side. So maybe soul is more an adjective than a noun.

In materialism a person is at the mercy of matter and is driven to accumulate things or give one’s attention to them in the extreme. In other words, material-ism is a symptom or complex that makes a strong urge and demand. Ordinarily, we can related to things freely and fairly moderately, only occasionally becoming passionate about them. A materialistic complex sometimes show itself as a compulsion to buy things or certain objects. For a while I personally had a compulsion to buy a good keyboard for my computer. I was materialistic for a few months. I was not free to think of other things, and it wasn’t just need, but an overriding desire. It didn’t last long, and it may not have been pure materialism, but that element was present. Being overwhelmed by desire may at times entail a flight of soul.

Contemporary society, on the other hand, seems to be materialistic in many ways: excessive advertising, billboards blocking our view of nature, things made poorly and ill-designed. Here is where William Morris stepped in with the idea and practice of craft. Taking time to make things, making them beautiful, accessible to people regardless of income, making things that enhance human relationships and the quality of life. Jung builds his tower and carves his stone as an expression of psyche as he experiences it. There is depth and poetry associated with practical things like a home’s structure and decor. We can become more materially minded as a way out of the soul-destroying impact of materialism.

CR: Could you say more about us not wanting “the limitations and challenges of making a beautiful material world”?

Our cities are full of ugly roads, streets, buildings and noises. But ugliness sets the soul back. It creates an unsettled, conflicted, perhaps angry matrix for doing creative work and living creative lives. Most cities do have some beautiful buildings, et cetera, but also much ugliness. In our design and manufacturing of buildings and streets, it takes an extra effort, more time and money and more than a pragmatic/economic frame of mind to create beauty. Most of all builders would have to be educated in a cultural life and brought to a level of appreciation for the beautiful. To many people, all of this is a bother and completely unnecessary. I was once in a bookstore in line to buy a set of books, when two economics students were in front of me. “Why are we here buying Shakespeare? We will never use his work in our field.” It would take an extra effort of thought and imagination to see the relevance of Shakespeare to economics, and that implies that there is a laziness of mind in much culture building. We think we’re finished when we make a material world that functions. We don’t ask if that functioning includes the expression of deep values, social justice, and beauty.

CR: Morris’ mojo was in his hands; Jung was very material. I like your focus on everyday objects. What does a physical psychotherapy mean for the consulting room?

Psychotherapy, the word, comes from two Greek words: psyche (soul) and therapeia (service or care). It is not about the mind or human behavior or the emotions. Soul is the source of vitality and dimension in a person or a thing. Yes, things have soul, as do animals and plants. This is an ancient idea. When I first began my practice as a therapist I would go to a patient’s home and read every aspect of it. I’d look at the structure, colours, textures, decor, sizes, furnishings—everything about the house. I felt that where a person lives is an expression and matrix of soul. Now I don’t visit homes but I do ask about place and space. I learned in my study of early Renaissance quasi-medical books that the choice of where to live on the globe or in your town is the first essential in caring for your soul. I now keep that in mind with my clients. I also do not put tight limits about the material of therapy. One week I will be focused on a client’s personal history and dreams, and the next week I may be doing supervision, if the client is a therapist. I sometimes read a client’s writing. I have done therapy sitting next to a client on a piano bench, playing chords as we talk. In Zoom-like meetings, I discuss the home space I see on the screen. Related to this focus on material things, I now let the conversation with a client float until it congeals, not until I make interpretations or worse, suggestions. The aspect of life under consideration coalesces for both of us, not to me first or in a preferred way. I trust that an hour is just what it takes to watch a dream and life stories and problems and worries swirl until they settle into an insight or two. Seeing soul in the material world requires that the therapist take the role of curator (as in cura animarum—care of souls) or host.

Often the hands know how to solve a riddle with which the intellect has wrestled in vain ~ CG Jung, CW 8, par. 180