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Reply To: The King Who Saved Himself From Being Saved” with Bradley Olson, Ph.D.”

Bradley Olson

Hi, James

Yes, projection is an inescapable phenomenon, and of course you’re right in your assessment of its influence. We humans look out at the world, believing ourselves to be capable of objectively understanding and describing the material world. The reality is, because of the mechanisms of projection, we only see ourselves reflected back to ourselves by the world. Only experience, coupled with the awareness that we might not be correct about what we see, helps us to refine our seeing, and with each successive seeing, more clearly define and expand our understanding of the external world. We always come to the world with a perspective–a pre-existing lens which shapes and colors the way we view the world, just as Ciardi’s Hero comes into this little, peaceful kingdom, with an a priori judgment/perspective that every kingdom with a king is run by a tyrant. “All over his head was his helmet, And in his head was a fight.” We always discover what we expect.

Now myth, and all great literature really, is the antidote to projection. I know that may sound odd or counter intuitive, but hear me out. The literature of myth asks us to understand itself as metaphor. We tend to literalize myth–concretize it, as you said–so it doesn’t always (ever?) work this way in practice, yet the metaphoric point of view is what myth relies upon, it opens myth up. The metaphoric point of view is skeptical, and skepticism urges a deeper, closer, reading. A metaphoric perspective is threatening to established narratives or interpretations precisely because it is in this way so destabilizing. Metaphor reminds us that the ice we walk on, as Louis Menand says, is never not thin. Metaphor may be seen as the via negativa because the nature of metaphor is to deconstruct anything substantive, assuming that what is meant is more than, or other than, what the words literally say. Thinking mythically (thinking metaphorically) has a built-in feature that serves to remind us to question our own expectations, biases, and assumptions–what reportage on the Ukrainian conflict fails to consider.

Another thing the projections obscure is the very nature of Mr. Putin himself. He has always told us who he is, and apparently few listened. Addressing parliament back in 2003, he stated,

A country like Russia can live and develop in its existing borders only if it is a great power. In all periods when the country was weak – politically or economically – Russia always and inevitably faced the threat of collapse.

Functionally, Putin operates like the head of an immense mafia family rather than a head of state, and he seems to greatly enjoy it, as any successful Don would. One can reasonably conclude then, that Mr. Putin felt Russia was somehow becoming weaker or perhaps irrelevant, and he had to move to consolidate political power (perhaps with the goal of reconstituting the old Soviet Union) and stave off political and economic collapse.

Of course, we can never escape projection, but if we are able to remind ourselves that we are always projecting we can become more adept at withdrawing those projections and see deeply into whatever we might be experiencing or observing. To put this in Platonic terms, there is no such place as “outside the cave.” Myth, philosophy, psychology, even life itself, boils down to working with shadows.

Thanks for such an enthusiastic engagement on my little essay. I’m very grateful for you and the time you spent engaging Stephen and myself, and for your support of the Joseph Campbell Foundation.