What Happened to Our Souls?

We now live in a very spiritual age, but not a soulful one. Our politicians on both sides have ambition, but not much soul. Our digital devices now own us.

A little over twenty years ago, former monk, author and therapist Thomas Moore opened a new book with these lines: "The great malady of the twentieth century, implicated in all our troubles and affecting us individually and socially, is 'loss of soul.' When soul is neglected, it doesn't just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning."

Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, Moore's book from which that passage is taken, became a huge bestseller. Rereading it in 2014, the book seems wiser than ever. With our materialism, imagination-crushing technology, political superficiality, dumb movies, Oprah confessionals, and glib Jon Stewart-snark, the Western world has lost even more soul since Care of the Soul was published in 1992. The budding illness that Moore diagnosed two decades ago has now metastasized and is threatening the life of the patient.

What is soul? In Care of the Soul, Moore bravely doesn't define it: "When you look closely at the image of soulfulness, you see that it is tied to life in all its particulars -- good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart. Soul is revealed in attachment, love, and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy." The soul delights in rumination. It loves mystery. It can accept some forms of depression as a gift. It doesn't shy away from things modern society tries to repress: eroticism that is dark and even dangerous, but not pornographic (the surging wine-dark sea of male passion is particularly suspect in 2014); rock and roll and movies that reject political correctness (but with poetry and not vulgarity); mortality; all-night meals of rich foods and bottles of wine; long hours of contemplation without distraction.

What soul is not, writes Moore, is spirituality: "It appears to me that we are not a society drifting away from spirituality at all; on the contrary, we are in a certain sense more spiritual than we need to be." These days everybody is "spiritual but not religious," which is really not saying much. Spirituality is more about surfaces than soul. It's intellectual, technical, abstract. It's yoga and video games, not rainy days and Southern Comfort. Unlike soul, spirit doesn't have a shadow, that deep and dark part of us that Carl Jung, a main inspiration to Thomas Moore, argued was essential to being human.

The loss of the soul was once considered fatal to a human person. The Bruke Museum in Berlin is currently showing Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's work Peter Schlemihl's Wondrous Story. Kirchner was a German artist who had a nervous breakdown following service in World War I. Kirchner interpreted his condition as losing his soul, and did a series of woodcuts based on a popular novel about a man who sold his soul to the devil. That novel, of course, is a play off of Faust, one of the original stories of someone selling their soul to the devil. Were he to suffer a post-combat breakdown today, Kirchner would be treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is a good thing, yet it's hard not to feel that something would be lost, something ravishingly soulful, if Kirchner's great art was medicated away.

We now live in a very spiritual age, but not a soulful one. Our politicians on both sides have ambition, but not much soul. Our digital devices now own us. (Even in 1992 Moore was onto the ill effects of the cyborg revolution: "The computer itself, in its refinement of the concrete particulars of life to digital mathematics and light graphics, is, for better or worse, a kind of spiritualization or disembodiment of matter.") Lena Dunham, the celebrity of our time, is crackling with spirituality but not soul. Taylor Swift has spirit but not much soul. The politicized art scene more and more rejects soul in favor of cheap thrills and dumb political stunts.

One of the last places where soul can express itself is rock and roll. Popular songs about our souls are still common; of course, African-Americans created an entire form of music to address the needs and expressions of the soul, and it is from the blues and jazz that modern pop music is still taking a lot of its cues. Singers like Frank Ocean, Jhene Aiko (whose new album is called Souled Out), and Mary J. Blige express the soul's longing and pain in ways that are both modern and timeless. On "The Troubles," a song off of U2's latest album Songs of Innocence, the band observes that the loss of one's soul is far more serious than any social or political problem: "Somebody stepped inside your soul/Somebody stepped inside your soul/Little by little they robbed and stole/'Til somebody else was in control."

The Austin band Spoon has named their new album They Want My Soul. The title track describes an urban pilgrim who sees that everyone he encounters wants the same thing: "Card sharks and street preachers want my soul/All the sellers and palm readers want my soul."

So the soul is still alive despite our attempts -- through technology, denial of death, health obsessions, and narcissistic "spirituality" -- to eradicate it.

Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock 'n' Roll.

Print this post

Do you like this post?

Add your reaction to this article