The Middle Passage

A word of warning: though this post is titled “The Middle Passage,” it’s not about African slave transportation routes. It’s titled after the book it discusses, which is a psychologist’s account of midlife crisis. Just in case someone thought it would be something else. 

When the Incomparable Mrs. Jiwaku talked about James Hollis’ The Middle Passage—she’d been reading a Korean translation of the book—she was quite passionate about it, but I found myself skeptical: a self-help book about the midlife crisis, by a Jungian psychologist?

Three sets of alarm sirens went off in my head, which you can guess from the emphases above. I’m not going through that, I thought to myself. No desire to buy a sports car, or run off with someone younger, or get enmeshed in some kind of affair. I’m not that sort of person…

Besides, the author’s Jungian focus… well, artists love Jung, but the man did believe in some kooky things. Where one ought to stand on the more extravagant criticisms of Jung, like those of Richard Noll, I’m not sure: some accuse Noll of sensationalism, others of merely wanting to get out facts that Jungians seem eager to keep quiet. Still, I know more than enough about Jung to be uncomfortable with some of the more parapsychological and occult nonsense he embraced, literally as well as—supposedly—metaphorically; sure, people didn’t know it was clearly nonsense at the time, but we don’t take Paracelsus’ theories all that seriously today, just the same.) 

Plus, you know… it’s a self-help book, right? I tend to avoid those generally, even though a few have been useful to me along the way, because the vast majority of such books are about as useful as the latest diet book.  

Still, what she said about the book made it sound like it was possibly worth looking into, so when I found that it was easy to get a copy, I did so. It’s a month later, give or take a few days, and I’ve just finished the book, and… well, it was fascinating. Hollis was a working therapist when he wrote the book, and he (pseudonymously) talks about some of the cases of people who came to him in the throes of midlife crisis.

And what do you know? I think I found in it some useful insights, in the style of “reminders of things we all know, but often forget.” 

Here’s the central thing I think I take away from the book: most of the time when I’ve heard people use the term “midlife crisis,” it’s always in a pejorative manner, chiding the behavior of someone they know who’s had an affair or left their spouse for someone terribly inappropriate, or gone plastic-surgery crazy, or bought a sports car, or torched a career of decades and walked away without the slightest hesitation. We see people do these things, and look on in wonder, and mutter, “Midlife crisis, I guess?” 

Hollis, though, makes the point that these are symptoms, not the crisis itself—and argues that they are, specifically, the not of having a midlife crisis, but of resisting facing it head-on.

For Hollis, the midlife crisis is a natural stage of maturation for the adult, a time of struggle that people go through for cultural, psychological, and most of all for explicable reasons. The midlife crisis, Hollis argues, is purposive, and it’s a denial, a refusal to face it that leads to the crazy stuff we normally associate with a midlife crisis.

To me, the idea that a lot of people in middle age find themselves struggling with meaning and identity makes a lot of sense. The bullshit jobs so many of us end up in, the strained marriages, the failures in career and parenting… it’s nothing as glamorous as some fin-de-siècle ennui: it’s more like a kind of inertia of the mind and the heart and the personality that one’s mind unconsciously realizes it’s been caught in, and begins to struggles against. I think of all the middle-aged men and women I know online who’ve returned to their childhood hobbies, and think, yeah, there’s probably something to the idea that when caught in this kind of emotional turmoil, people dive into their pasts, looking for fragments of themselves they thought long-gone, or rather, long-lost. I glance over at the bookcase in my home office, filled with RPG books I’ve bought over the past couple of years—some as replacements for books long-lost and suddenly-missed, and others the subject of renewed curiosity and enthusiasm. I look at that bookshelf and think, yeah, there’s something to that. 

The corollary to this main point of Hollis’ book is that, if you find yourself in the throes of a struggle of this kind, you have only one real choice. Sure, you could refuse to make the choice: you could just continue down a road of resentment and misery and confusion and meaninglessness, but the things you’re ignoring and the demons you’re refusing to wrestle, they won’t go away. They’ll return, time and again, and increasingly they will go for your throat. You end up buffeted by winds you can’t predict, carried by currents you can’t even see, ending up who knows where. 

But you have a choice not to do that: you can make the decision to instead be conscious, to embrace the process, to grapple with the confusion and frustration, and look it in the face. What Hollis argues is that when people do this, what they actually see there is a part of themselves, a person they once were, or might have been, or want to become, who’s been crushed down under the weight of adulthood and responsibility and career and family and political consciousness and whatever else we agreed to make of ourselves when we took up the mantle of adulthood. And for Hollis, the understandable point of all this is that we can follow the instinct to reassess where we’ve arrived, and ask ourselves what it is that’s wrong, and do something about it. 

This seems especially pertinent on a day like today. I walked into one of my classes, and as usual, I asked, “How are you today?” This is a sophomore class taking their first university course with a non-Korean lecturer, so of course it’s been a struggle to get them to interact in this informal way at the beginning of class. I’ve made a priority of emphasizing it, and somehow we’ve made our way almost to the end of the textbook while still making time for it in class. 

But today, they were silent. They were silent for so long I started to worry that something terrible had happened. I asked, “Is something wrong?” Baleful looks, and silence. “Did I do something mean last class?” I asked, baffled. They shook their head silently. It was downright weird. But then, one by one, they started talking, explaining how their weekends had gone, and so many of them spoke of just staying home all weekend, sleeping and eating, staring at screens, regretting things. These are twenty-year-olds, most of them, and yet they seem already broken down and crushed by forces that have rendered them powerless, and hurt, and sad, and lost. Already, at that age. I even told them about a class last week that left me with a kind of emotional struggle—students spouting hate-propaganda talking points (about the Yemeni refugees in Korea) and leaving me at a loss for what to do, and how I responded, and how to me it felt utterly inadequate and pointless, and yet it may have repercussions nonetheless. They seemed a little confused: why is he telling us this? I told them: because you’re not the only ones struggling. Anyone whose eyes are really open is struggling on some level.    

And I think that’s the takeaway with Hollis: the midlife crisis isn’t the car or the divorce or the trade-in wife or the torched career, so much as the tumult that you can no longer ignore… the tumult that can be positive and constructive if you engage with it consciously, but can be destructive or lead you to a kind of temporary insanity of the affair or the trade-in spouse or the sports car—or, if you can’t afford such extravagancies or choose to really ignore the crisis roiling within you, then even just to a heart attack, self-medication, suicide, or just ever-deepning misery.  

The stuff about the anima and animus, the inner child… I mean, I can take it or leave it. Hollis’ literary discussion near the end, I think a lot of people won’t get much out of, though I was delighted by some of the threads he pulled in, and laughed aloud when he invoked the ending of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,”  as a very compelling description of the forces one confronts when in the presence of a creative artwork; it was the first of Rilke’s poems that actually clicked for me, and incidentally, I’d described the poem and quoted the last half-line to some of my own students just a day or two before running across Hollis describing it in precisely the same way, near the end of the book:

Archaic Torso of Apollo
Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875 – 1926

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

So, I’m still I’m pretty dubious about a lot of the Jungian theory, and other older psychological theories in general. Freud? I have no time for him. Jung? I’m pretty dubioous.

But crises? Everyone has those, right? And lots of people ignore them deny them, and end up warped by it. So that central message, and the inspirational motivation that Hollis hopes to impart, that we can and should rise to the occasion when we feel the churn within ourselves? If you’re one of those people who’s never forgotten this, well, kudos to you: but a lot of people seem to need a periodic reminder, and Hollis’ book seems to do a reasonable job of that.  

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