myth and poetry

Mythopoetry Scholar

Annual Reflections In Depth Perspectives
Mythopoetry Scholar vol.3 2012
Living with the Dead
Re-collections Of An Unfinished Life
-Robert D. Romanyshyn


In the essay “Prelude to a Memoir” published in volume 2 of Mythopoetry in 2011, I recounted a dream in which a poet figure escorts my dream ego from the house of academia and guides me to a threshold between that special and even insular world and the quotidian world of life beyond it. That dream was one of those turning points in my life and as it has continued to companion me along the way it has deepened my understanding of the place of dreams in psychological life. In that dream, like so many others before and since it, there is a glimpse of the patterns that have woven and continue to weave together the threads of my waking life. I am persuaded now as I approach the end of my 60s, and perhaps more so than ever before, that the primary function of the dream is orphic.

Under the Spell of Orpheus

Orpheus, the eponymous poet, is the poet whose very name is the name of poetry itself. Orpheus, especially in the guise of his modern form as Rilke, has mattered to me for more than two decades. He has figured prominently in my approach to Jung’s psychology, and indeed I have argued elsewhere how the archetypal roots of Jung’s psychology are Orphic. The only poet whom Plato allowed back into the Polis reappears in Jung’s psychology. Jung makes a place in the polis of soul for this poet whose songs, unlike those of Homer and Hesiod, educate soul beyond a mimetic identification with and repetition of collective, conventional norms. The orphic melody educates soul via the work of re-membering it to the archetypal depths of its natural and cosmic rhythms. Orpheus’ presence also lingered as I was developing an approach to research that applies Jung’s psychology to the research process. The Wounded Researcher: Research with Soul in Mind was written under the spell of Orpheus.

Under the spell of Orpheus! This curious phrase matters because it captures the key theme of the book’s content, that the work that one does chooses him or her as much as and perhaps even more than he or she chooses it. To write under the spell of Orpheus, the ‘I’ who was thinking about and thinking through the work had to surrender to the ways in which Orpheus was spelling the work. Orpheus bewitched the work. The work and the writer, The Wounded Researcher and the wounded researcher, were enchanted by Orpheus.  Under his spell, charmed by his presence, enchanted by his tale, the theme of research unfolded itself alongside the imaginal presence of Orpheus and from within the larger archetypal tale of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I, who thought he was the author of the work, became its agent in service to the archetypal patterns in the work, in service to the unfinished business in psychology about research. A work that was purportedly an academic treatise on research became a poetics of re-search, a tale of love, loss, descent and transformation awakening soul and deepening mind. Under the spell of Orpheus, this work on research became a testament to re-search as a key part of the soul’s curriculum. The book on research recovered how in the soul’s manner of education we are all re-searchers. Searching again for what has already made its claims upon you, psychological education becomes a work against forgetting, of remembering what has been lost, forgotten, abandoned, repressed, and of being re-membered within those larger, archetypal patters of which one is not the maker.

Living with the Dead is an experiment in how under the tutelage of soul we are educated through the eyes of love and loss. It is an experiment in being responsive to how in learning to see through the eyes of the dead, we learn to see the timeless archetypal patterns in the time bound events of life, to be responsive to the disclosure of the eternal in the here and now. An example follows.

The Falling Star

My father was a storyteller and through him I learned that stories are a primary mode of educating soul because they awaken and nourish the imagination and make invisible worlds visible. He told many stories and more often than not the venue was the Sunday-after-dinner table. One of those tales and perhaps the one that has had the most enduring effect on me was about the falling star. To understand his story, especially its key image, I need to give some context for it.

In July 1914 my father’s father, a successful tailor in the lower east side of New York and aware of the gathering turmoil in Europe, took his family back to a small town in the Ukraine to sell off some farmland that he and his family owned. My father at that time was nearly five years old. When war began in August of that year my grandfather was drafted into the Austria-Hungarian army. In 1917 my father’s mother died of the pandemic flu that swept the world at that time. Shortly after her death my father’s father was killed in the war. My father and his brother, older by two years, were orphans. Between 1917 and 1926 when he and his brother were brought back to the U.S. by an aunt and uncle, my father and his brother, often separated, were shuffled among various relatives. Orphans, they were homeless and alone. How he came to know this fate is the moment in the story that has stayed with me my entire life, a vivid and vital image that was impressed on my soul.

It was getting darker as he lay on a small hill in a field of grass near the house where his mother who had been ill for a while was sleeping. The haystacks in the field had a sweet fragrance that soothed him. In the growing twilight, he saw the first stars appearing in the sky. Their bright shine was enchanting. Slipping into a place near dreaming, he noticed one bright star falling from the sky toward the earth. He was not quite eight years old, but at that moment as he followed the arc of the falling star he knew that his mother had died.

My father was a courageous man who silently carried the orphan figure and its mood of melancholy. Apart from the story of the falling star, he never talked of his sorrow, and indeed he never used the word orphan. But the orphan figure was always there in other stories in guises cloaked in words that spoke to a sense of being a wanderer who was always looking for something, always in search of home.

Our lives are haunted by those stories that still need an ending and over the years I have slowly come to realize how the orphan in its many guises has been the companion through whose eyes I have regarded my life and have done my work. But it was not until some work that I did with a shaman, after many years of analysis and dream work, that the story of the falling star found some resolution. In that work the shaman, who knew nothing of my life, told me that the illness I had had at that time was related to my being too far away from the ancestors, and as he lingered in their presence he said to me that one ancestor had always stayed near. It was my father’s mother, my grandmother who had been waiting for her story of sorrow to be told, that story of leaving behind two sons as orphans.

Genetic inheritance is more than biological. It is also a matter of soul. Through my father’s orphan figure I have inherited the unfinished tale of his mother, my grandmother. I know now that there is a link between the many words that I have written over the years―words whose major themes have been about soul work as un-forgetting, about recollecting the past in order to imagine a future, about homecoming, about Orpheus, about the orphan―and the words that she whispered in her dying moments, words that perhaps no one was near enough to hear.

We do see through the eyes of the dead and each life is embedded within the still-waiting-to-be-told-stories of the ancestors. Because I know this with that kind of belief that is beyond mere reason, my life and work in psychology has led me to Jung and it is there that I find some measure of home.  Jung writes in the company of the dead. In his autobiography, he tells us that the souls of his ancestors are sustained in the Tower at Bollingen where there is nothing to disturb the dead. The dead haunt that place, enchanting it with their presence. They linger there because, as he says, he answers for them the questions that their lives once left behind.

I have my own version of a tower, a ritual space where I begin my day in the company of the ancestors, tuning my ears to what they ask of me. These ritual times are moments of enchantment that impose upon me a task: how do I write from a place of enchantment? The question itself is layered. Enfolded within its skin are other questions: Who is the writer? What characterizes psychological writing? How does one write down the soul in writing up one’s re-search, in writing up what has already made its claim upon you and asks you to be its voice? Jung says he answered the questions of the ancestors by carving out rough answers as best as he could and by drawing the ancestors on the walls. I do it by keeping these questions alive by staying close to the ancestors in that ritual space, and now by trying to continue the story with this eight-part experiment in service to those moments and figures of soul whose tales are waiting to be told.


Living with the Dead is one piece of an eight-part experiment to identify those epiphanic moments, that have shaped my life and informed my work as one devoted to the spirit of soul that haunts the spirit of psychology. In this regard, these pieces take their stand within that distinction that Jung made between the spirit of the depths and the spirit of the times. Epiphanies in Dark Light offers photographic images of those elusive moments when ordinary things re-mind one that the world in its sheer presence truly is the vale of soul making, while Inner Journeys in the Outer World celebrates the chiasm of soul and nature with music and images of a landscape whose awesome beauty evokes a sense of new found wonder that recovers a sense of the sacred. These two are experiments in a psychology in service to the many ways in which the world’s displays play with us, even seduce us, and certainly awaken us and give us our place, our standing in the surround. Leaning toward the Poet also is in service to these displays. But what gives this experiment its particular character is a variation on that tension between things and words that permeates Rilke’s poetry. In this respect, many of the poems in Leaning toward the Poet begin in the ear that first listens to what, for example, the splendor of the simple like an empty bench and the miracle in the mundane like fog creeping up a hill to carry the dreams of water to be green address to us.

The four other parts of this experiment are responses to how, for example, one’s life is a Portrait in Dreams, and how being schooled in soul teaches one to see the shadows that haunt the light. So, The Shadows in the City is a photographic testimonial to some of those ignored elements, including faces of the homeless and their stories. Left by the Side of the Road is an experiment in the rituals and arts of un-forgetting, a testament to the many ways in which one is summoned to stop and turn and linger in order to be addressed by those figures of soul who wait with their unfinished business that is a heritage seeded with one’s destiny. Finally An Unfinished Life is an experiment in the pardoxes of failure. It is an admission, even a confession, that being in service to soul making is not a choice so much as it is a vocation that we nevertheless do choose in being responsive to it. It is also an admission that in making one’s life in response to how it is being made through patterns not of one’s making, the task is left undone, incomplete, unfinished. But in such a moment when this recognition comes what seems like failure becomes success, for in such a moment one learns not only that one’s ending is also a beginning, but also that all along one has been living into one’s death, being fashioned all along into becoming an ancestor, being made ready to leave by the side of the road that unfinished business for others to take up as a destiny.

Uncertain about not only the outcome of this experiment, I also wonder about its very nature. Is this experiment a work of memoir? Is memoir an appropriate container for this experiment? And if it is a memoir then is it singular? Is it perhaps also an experiment in writing an elemental psychology, an experiment in which each part stands as a new kind of introductory book in psychology, one that in following the dream noted above is written on the threshold and not within the halls of academia, an-other way of writing down the soul in writing up psychology?

I have no answers yet to these questions and I suspect that answers will come only as the work itself is done. I do, however, have a hint about the nature of this experiment as it begins to unfold.

I am aware that the identity of the “I’ who is doing this experiment is inseparable from the unfolding discipline of psychology from its beginnings during the last three decades of the 19th century and especially the origins of depth psychology on the eve of the 20th century to the threshold of the 21st century. My life has been crafted within this larger tale and I have come to know myself from within the many turns of that history. I have been who I am as a disciple of this discipline. The roots of my life in psychology as a profession have been in psychology as a vocation. A Portrait in Dreams offers multiple examples of the imbrications between identity as personal history and vocation as transpersonal history.

In this context if this eight-part experiment is a memoir, then it is an inverted memoir, a work that turns itself inside out, a work of being re-collected and re-membered by those patterns of which one has not been the maker. In this context the image that perhaps best suits this inversion is that of the memoirist as eavesdropper. Neither inside nor outside my life, my e-ducation has taken place in that edge place where, secretly listening in on the secrets of soul, I have been in-formed and led into myself. Indeed, I am still eavesdropping as this eight-part project arises from questions I overhear, questions that bespeak the unfinished business of psychology. Is depth psychology still relevant in a wired world? Does soul still matter in a world so different from the origins of depth psychology, a world where the speed of communication and transportation was such that one had time to pause, to linger, to be patient, to dream and to wonder in reverie about the dream?

If this project is a memoir, and if as an inverted memoir it is about finding those patterns that have woven an identity and continue to weave a life and hold it, however loosely, together, then it must be plural. Memoirs and not a memoir because the ‘I’ as the one who chooses a life, who arranges its events and writes the plot, and who directs the play from outside it is an illusion! There is no ‘I’ outside the midst and mess of life. The ‘I’ who one is at any moment is the one who at such a moment wakes up on stage in the midst of a drama which he or she has not authored and who then must begin to find the lines and the plot and the patterns that shape the characters who make the tale in which one plays his or her parts.   

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Robert Romanyshyn
Author Bio
Robert D. Romanyshyn PhD
is Senior Core Faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute and an Affiliate Member of the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts. He is the author of six books and numerous articles in edited volumes and professional journals. He has lectured widely in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Described by others as a master story teller, he says of himself that he entered psychology many years ago through the door of philosophy and has been struggling ever since to find his way out through the door of poetry.

His most recent book is The Wounded Researcher (2007).

Robert recently completed a DVD of his trip to the Antarctic, which is available at

Visit more of his work on line at

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