Thursday, 13 March 2008

The Ultimate Tourist

or (as this* delightful website which beat me to the title puts it):


Many time slips seem to happen during perfectly mundane activities.
In fact, the activities can be so mundane that, for that very reason, the "time slipper" doesn't even notice anything out of the ordinary... at first. (But more on that on some other occasion.)

Then, there are those enchanted moments that happen in circumstances that are somehow out of the ordinary: during travels, in moments of extreme feelings, in moments of self-oblivion, of - literally - ecstasy (Gr. extasis = being outside oneself).
It is then that the nature of "time travel" - the connection between slipping out of "time" and stepping out of oneself, of one's perception of Self - becomes evident.

If you're reading this page, you are likely to have heard of Carl Gustav Jung.
In fact, you're likely to have heard of him even if you aren't reading this page.

He was a very famous Swiss psychiatrist, originally a disciple of Freud (originally, Freud's favourite disciple, as a matter of fact), who revolutionised the psychiatric perspective of man and his/her placement within Time and within the World at large. (And, by the way, his surname is pronounced YOONG, not "young".)

Jung always loved travelling. He especially wanted to visit Rome - but he never did. It's a very interesting story, but it falls beyond the scope of this writing.

During one of his travels in the early 1930s Jung visited the ancient town of Ravenna, once upon a time the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Its many Byzantine churches are famous for their glorious mosaics. But Jung's attention was focused mainly on the tomb of Galla Placidia, a Roman princess in whose fate he was deeply interested.

After the emotional experience of visiting her tomb, he and an acquaintance (we know now that this "acquaintance" was likely one of his former students and his mistress at the time, not that it has anything to do with our story) proceeded to visit the Neonian baptistery, also called "of the Orthodox".

Let's listen to Jung's own account from his posthumously published autobiography, edited by Aniela Jaffe, titled Memories, Dreams, Reflections, translated by Clara and Richard Winston.

Pages 284-287:

"Even on the occasion of my first visit to Ravenna in 1913, the tomb of Galla Placidia seemed to me significant and unusually fascinating. The second time, 20 years later, I had the same feeling. Once more I fell into a strange mood in the tomb of Galla Placidia; once more I was deeply stirred.

I was there with an acquaintance, and we went directly from the tomb into the Baptistery of the Orthodox. Here, what struck me first was the mild blue light that filled the room; yet I did not wonder about this at all. I did not try to account for its source, and so the wonder of this light without any visible source did not trouble me. I was somewhat amazed because, in place of the windows I remembered having seen on my first visit, there were now four great mosaic frescoes of incredible beauty which, it seemed, I had entirely forgotten. I was vexed to find my memory so unreliable."

Follows an extensive description of the mosaics and their relevance to Jung.
I know there are people who are really not that interested in such descriptions, which is why I've italicised the entire passage, so you can skip it or read it, whichever you prefer.

"The mosaic on the south side represented the baptism in the Jordan. The second picture, on the north, was of the passage of the Children of Israel through the Red Sea. The third, on the east, soon faded from my memory. It might have shown Naaman being cleansed of leprosy in the Jordan; there was a picture on this theme in the old Merian Bible in my library, which was much like the mosaic. The fourth mosaic, on the west side of the baptistery, was the most impressive of all. We looked at this one last. It represented Christ holding out his hand to Peter, who was sinking beneath the waves. We stopped in front of this mosaic for at least 20 minutes and discussed the original ritual of baptism, especially the curious archaic conception of it as an initiation connected with real peril of death. Such initiations were often connected with the peril of death and so served to express the archetypal idea of death and rebirth. Baptism had originally been a real submersion which at least suggested the danger of drowning. I retained the most distinct memory of the mosaic of Peter sinking, and to this day can see every detail before my eyes: the blue of the sea, the individual chips of the mosaic, the inscribed scrolls proceeding from the mouths of Peter and Christ, which I attempted to decipher."

"After we left the baptistery, I went promptly to Alinari [the famous publishing house who issue stock photography of artistic monuments.[ to buy photographs of the mosaics, but could not find any. Time was pressing -- this was only a short visit -- and so I postponed the purchase until later. I thought I might order the pictures from Zurich. When I was back home, I asked an acquaintance who was going to Ravenna to obtain the pictures for me. He could not locate them, for he discovered that the mosaics I had described did not exist.

The memory of those pictures is still vivid to me. The lady who had been there with me long refused to believe that what she had seen with her own eyes had not existed. As we know, it is very difficult to determine whether, and to what extent, two persons simultaneously see the same thing. In this case, however, I was able to ascertain that at least the main features of what we both saw had been the same.

"This experience in Ravenna is among the most curious events in my life. It can scarcely be explained. A certain light may possibly be cast on it by an incident in the story of Empress Galla Placidia (+ 450). During a stormy crossing from Byzantium to Ravenna in the worst of winter, she made a vow that if she came though safely, she would build a church and have the perils of the sea represented in it. She kept this vow by building the basilica of San Giovanni in Ravenna and having it adorned with mosaics. In the early Middle Ages, San Giovanni, together with its mosaics, was destroyed by fire; but in the Ambrosiana in Milan is still to be found a sketch representing Galla Placidia in a boat."

Jung goes on to explain the possible cause of his vision. He felt a sense of very strong kinship, culturally and spiritually, with the princess. By "re-living" in his mind Galla's perilous crossing of the sea, he speculates, his immersion in the total identification with the princess may have prompted his anima to project the vision of the mosaics, long-destroyed, of Saint Peter's equally perilous crossing of the sea of Galilee.

But what about Jung's companion? After all, she is reported as having seen the vision herself.
It is possible for mental imagery to be shared. 
(Which would explain a shared dream I had, and also one of my favourite "time slip" stories, We'll always have Paris... or whatever that was. It may even explain the grandmother of all "time slip" stories, the Moberly-Jourdain incident at Versailles.)

And what about the blue light?
I don't know. Jung doesn't know. Nobody seems to know; or if they do, they're saying nothing. ;)
But in this our world, entirely composed by waves and vibrations, among them the waves that we call light, light blue light seems to have a very special place. Not for nothing is the first light of creation, according to the Kabbalah.
(More on this on some future occasion, if and when I return to this blog on a more regular basis. Stay tuned.)

Jung also said something else, often (and incomprehensibly) omitted from partial accounts of his extraordinary experience (p. 287)

"Since my experience in the baptistery in Ravenna, I know with certainty that something interior can appear to be exterior and that something exterior can appear to be interior. The actual walls of the baptistery,though they must have been seen by my physical eyes, were covered over by a vision of some altogether different sight which was as completely real as the unchanged baptismal font.
Which was real at that moment?
My case is by no means the only one of its kind."

No, indeed it isn't, Herr Doktor Jung.
Something like that happened to me, too, back in 1998.
(You can read about it here.)

Meanwhile, here's a website with wonderful pictures of mosaics in Ravenna, to whet your appetite for travel... in space, time or otherwise. ;)

(Edit added on February 6th, 2009):

Much to our regret, the website referred to in the first link isn't operational anymore.
But it really deserves to be read, so here is the Wayback Machine cache of its home page.
It'll be a little cumbersome to read all of their pages this way, but it's better than nothing.


Michael Schuyler said...

I was at that tomb a few years ago. Indeed, my assignment for the class was on this tomb. The interior is absolutely covered with mosaics, many of which are gold leaf. She was the daughter, wife, and mother of emperors and an empress herself--quite an aamzing story and worth looking up. Since the floor has 'risen' over the years, it feels like you are in the dome itself.

Myosotis said...

I am glad you got to see, Michael. ;)

Personally I consider the Ravenna mosaics to be the most impressive such ensemble. (And being by the sea makes it even more wonderful a place for a short vacation! :)

Galla Placidia did have an amazing life story. What a woman!
I might include a link or two, if I find a good book about her - time slips or not. ;)

Thank for reminding me!