What’s Your Position As the Ship Goes Down?

is a writer, editor and co-director of The Dark Mountain Project. Her most recent book, After Ithaca is about recovering our core relationships with the mythos and sentient Earth, revolving around the Underworld tasks of Psyche. She teaches ensemble creative practice and lives on the wild salty edge of East Anglia.
  It’s the question the man keeps asking us, as he storms the stage and curses the thousand-year-old myth of exile that has wreaked havoc on the planet and the erstwhile robust psyche of the human race. Psychotherapy has betrayed us he thunders, it ignores the Earth, it takes no account of social justice and no longer speaks with the dead. We are divorced from our collective daemon and are paying the price. The gods are fed up! he declares. They do not fit in our heads. They want out!

The man is James Hillman, famous psychologist, delivering a lecture on Jung and classical mythology. Tall, erudite and very very annoyed, he beats against his chosen subject like an eagle caught in a snare.

Sometimes you are in a place and you are not sure why you are there. All around me the audience to this Olympian tirade are calmly writing notes for their essays and quite a few of them are making their way to the ‘bathroom’ and back. It feels as if I am the only person wondering how to answer the question, and another he mysteriously keeps repeating:

 What are we going to do now, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean?

James Hillman is dead now, but true to his profession and mine, I keep the unanswered questions tucked under my own wing. In 1999 I am looking at dreams in the city of Oxford and the Indian god Varuna has visited me. Dark-coated he strode down the aisle of a church and delivered a message:

Consolable grief we can help with, inconsolable we cannot, with the underlying information that Separation is arrogance.

Varuna is a primary, underworld god, ruler of the watery nagas, who carries a noose in his hand in the shape of a snake. He storms through the dark church because he is the keeper of the cosmic law, which is not the law of human beings or their religions. In his peerless ‘essay’ on civilisation, The Ruin of Kasch, Roberto Calasso outlines the relationship between the primordial god and his worldly counterpart, Mitra:

The civilising sweetness of Mitra, ‘everyone’s friend’, can only exist insofar it can stand out against the dark and remote background of the sovereignty of Varuna. ‘Mitra is this world, Varuna is the other world,’ the Satapatha Brahamana clearly states. Mitra is the world of men; Varuna is the rest, perennially around it, capable of squeezing it like a noose.

When the world only runs according to the laws of social contract, Varuna’s nooses tighten around ‘those who did not know these were the results of many sentencings under a law no one could decipher anymore.’

Varuna comes before Indra, before Shiva, before all the monotheistic gods and the myth of the Fall. He is akin to the classical Titans, kept trapped under mountains or banished to the oceans. But no matter how invisible these beings are made out to be, there are consequences to ignoring their ancestral laws. And a life lived knowing there are consequences to every action takes a very different shape to one that assumes, so long as Mitra’s laws are kept, you are free from any feedback loops.

And you may ask: why are you telling us this dream 15 years after you had it? Because,even though we might know there are consequences to our civilisation’s acts scientifically, which is to say with our reasoning minds, I am realising, as the storm advances, we need urgently to remember how to speak with the sea.

Console is an interesting word here. It means with soul, with sun. The gods can console the human being, Varuna tells me, but if he or she is inconsolable, this is not because the god cannot help, but because human arrogance will not let the spirit in. If you insist on separation and sorrow, you block the gods’ entrance.

The dream was preceded by two others: one took place in a church in which a small boy was possessed by the ghost of a woman who had hanged herself, and the other at the mouth of Hades where Second World War soldiers were wandering out, shouting ‘You are supposed to save us!’ In both these dreams I was trying to intercede as an intermediary, and failing because I was stuck a place of  inconsolable grief, among the furious and lost.

To get out of ‘hell’ we need to ask an underworld god for help. That’s a deal most of us resist because to let spirit in means undergoing radical change. It means taking on knowledge you would rather not have any responsibility for.  But, you know, forced to choose between increased consciousness or oblivion, there sometimes is no choice.

When you discover the world is not as you thought, the heart demands you make a move: when you stumble upon the reality of the abattoir, the maize field, the garment factory; when you take the red pill and look at the graphs of Arctic sea ice, financial bubbles and oil production; when you suddenly notice  the barn owl no longer flies past your window, or the hares leap in the field, you can respond in three ways: you continue to listen to the band and repeat to yourself I’m OK, the ship is OK; you can sit on the stairs and lament that it is happening; or you can head to the lifeboat. Obviously, you tell yourself, that is the correct position to be in when the ship goes down.

But what if you can’t make it to the lifeboat on your own? What if you find the lifeboats were sold off long ago to pay the shipping company’s debts, and you are not, you suddenly realise, a passenger?

restoration drama

A Good Day for Cyclists, Jeremy Deller

You can do physical things to mollify those thousand-year-old consequences: I have reduced my carbon emissions to four tonnes a year; I forage and cut my own wood, wear second hand clothes. I haven’t been to a supermarket in seven years. I don’t fly, or use palm oil or buy tomatoes grown by modern-day African slaves. But, key as those responses are, this is not the realm that Hillman was talking about on that warm spring night in Santa Barbara as the millennium turned. The place where Varuna lives in a dream.

To fully redress the balance, we need to live along the horizontal axis of feeling and spirit, in a world that only admits the vertical – body and mind. In order to be guided by our fiery spirits we have to feel, in a world designed to prevent you from doing anything of the sort. Rage, grief, despair, sorrow, are emotional states that keep us in lock down, wringing our hands and justifying our position on the stairs. The heart however can be consoled in time. It is consoled by the world that holds it dear, and because it is never alone.

Jeremy Rifkin, in his book The Empathic Civilisation, describes how each age in Western civilisation consciousness expands, relative to its energy production and communications. At this point we are moving from a psychological age towards what he calls the dramaturgical. Empathy expands with our ability to play different roles and thus understand the shared mortality of all creatures. He suggests that unless we learn to empathise and feel together on a planetary level, our ability to withhold or weather collapse will be impossible.

When you track dreams you realise you cannot analyse them psychologically, or they disappear like deer into the forest. You learn quickly that the storyline is not important, or the fact that your mother or your ex-best friend are once again making you feel like a dishrag. The first key thing in a dream is your position within its drama, and the second key thing is how you move from that position out of the constricting space it holds you in. The third is that, when you make the move, you can see that things change in many dimensions at once. Your dream is not a personal problem, it is a collective state.

Civilisations hold us in repeat dramas, like Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. We are doomed to keep following the mechanics of the plot, unless we can break into the action, deux ex machina, and change its course.

Dreamwork is one way of seeing how to do this. Following the track of myths, as Hillman did, is another way, so long as we do not become more fascinated by our pathology than the world’s freedom. The gods, once our way-showers, become easily trapped by our clever ‘left-brain’ minds, filed under ‘Symptoms’  and ‘Syndromes’. They get mad in there, and we get sick. 100 years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse, as the learned doctor once wrote.

When you face the consequences of your unexamined, civilised life, you make moves to restore the world and your place within it. You have a practice, adopt a warrior attitude, you prepare for the future with less energy and money, empty yourself so that you are flexible, free to respond without some ghost or untempered ego in the way, knowing that each small move matters on levels you do not always see. Most of all you can break out of your mind’s silo and initiate yourself into the tribe — become one of the people.

But however you move, you know you can’t do this stuff on your own. Somehow you have to decipher the law.

Our ways of understanding life in graphs and linear narrative are not cutting it at this point because the planet is not shaped that way. Its laws are not made of words or mathematics. Varuna speaks in winds and ocean waves and his law governs worlds of never-ending chaos and creativity. We can no longer peer into our human problems as if we were Freud, and our ‘issues’ a hysterical woman from Vienna. In a dramaturgical age, we are all actor and director and playwright, and frequently find ourselves waiting in the wings, spear in hand, woefully under rehearsed. The Earth, we realise, is our stage. Without it, we are meaningless.

finding our star, (not) following the wrong god home

Still from Life of Pi, director Ang Lee

Last night I went to Westleton Common and looked at the stars with a group of local astronomers. The Common was once a quarry and is famous now for its tiny heathland flowers and nightingales. The group has just formed and each month they hold a ‘star party’ and you can go along and watch nebulas, galaxies and the moons of Jupiter through a several large telescopes. We were invited by Malcolm who has a smallholding in the next door village and whose organic vegetables we have been eating for 12 years now.

There is something extraordinary about meeting strangers in the dark (torches impair night vision) and it seemed to me, only on a piece of common land among people who are keen to share their knowledge, would you find such a feeling of friendship and ease.

Up above us the constellations burn in the vastness of space and time. They have scientific names like M57 and the Trapezium, and also older mythic names, conjured by civilisations that came and went before our own: Aldebaran and Pegasus, the Crab Nebula, Orion the Hunter, his Dog and the North star by which we set our course. Thanks to the telescopes I now know that the Seven Sisters are in fact a host of luminaries, and that Betelgeuse who shines red at the tip of the cosmic bull’s horns is old and dying. The sun will become a planetary nebula too one day, says Malcolm, as he describes the fall of our home star into its final form as a white dwarf. ‘And then what?’ I ask.

‘It becomes a black dwarf.’

‘And then?’

‘That’s it!’ he declares and we laugh and go in search of the Orion Nebula.

In some ways you might say that we are short of modern stories to explain our position in the universe: we have looked so far into deep space that we cannot see the blueprint of the heavens so they might parallel our lives, or the drama of the solar system in which our planet, Earth, plays a distinctive role.

Maybe we need to know that the ship is always going down because that is the fate of all things in the universe, and that our struggle and desire to hold firm and burn brightly in the night sky, in spite of our inevitable mortality, is what makes sense of everything, whether we are a 4-billion-year-old star or a butterfly who lives for three days. That is what gives us meaning and dignity and frees us from Varuna’s noose as a people.

To shine means we have to deal with the darkness of ourselves and our collective, which is the ‘sacrifice’ described by all mystery and spiritual traditions. We have to lose our untempered powers and pleasures, so our hearts may weigh as light as Maat’s feather. Civilisations fall because, as native and archaic myths tell us, we fall into matter and neglect our light and fiery natures and our connection to dimensions beyond the one-dimensional here and now.

Though the astronomers can give us facts and the mythmakers and astrologers stories, our life together under this night sky is always a mystery, something unknowable, something you cannot pin down with word or image, number or symbol. But, if on a clear night you can let that mystery in and let it move about you, you might discover everything that ever needs to be known. That’s a paradox only the human heart can handle.

Sometimes I do not know entirely who I am: there is a lot of space and time now, where there used to be history and culture and closed doors. I am more actor than storyteller, and so perhaps in this brief role as messenger I can enter and answer Mr Hillman’s question at this point in the play:

What do we do now, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean?

Open your mind; set the gods free. All hands on deck.


Images: We Sit Starving Amongst Our Gold and A Good Day for Cyclists by Jeremy Deller at the Venice Biennale (photographed by Susan Eyre). Deller’s English Magic is now on tour in London, Bristol and Margate; still from Life of Pi, director Ang Lee (2013)


Charlotte Du Cann is a writer and editor and part of the core team behind The Dark Mountain Project. charlotteducann.blogspot.co.uk


  1. I was struck by Charlotte’s comments that, ” the Earth, we realize, is our stage. Without it, we are meaningless.” It is at once obvious yet elusive, particularly as we exist in a world that celebrates the wonders of humanity. The near infallibility of human progress pushed forward by human genius manifested through the latest gadget, idea, whathaveyou.
    But if Earth becomes the stage upon and for which we act, we are forced to reconsider our relationship with Earth and it’s constituent communities of plants, animals, insects, bacteria and on and on. Suddenly we are much smaller, our importance scaled back.
    But our minds can open to the mystery of life and work to its benefit. Our role on Earth the stage becomes more important because it weaves in the multiplicity of life, the mystery.

    1. Grateful to have found this piece. It so resonates with what we are talking about right here right now, on the central coast of California.

  2. Many thanks Charlotte, I loved this. And its great to see James Hillman’s name being sung here. I’m unashamedly jealous that you got to meet the man in person.

    Why do I find such consolation in Hillman’s words? I think because he speaks so clearly to the deep stuck-ness that marks our 21st Century civilization, for all its swipe-screen glamour. Allows, amidst increasingly frantic talk of Herculean ‘solutions’ – geo-engineering the Arctic, tearing down civilisation, whatever – for that mysterious torpor – the sense of paralysis that hangs over our half-hearted efforts to ‘turn around before its too late’.

    We often hear about the psychopathic nature of civilization. Hillman gives that idea a dimension that means much more to me, in relation to this eco-cidal ‘culture of occupation’, than the enraged, moralizing tone that the label usually comes with. ‘Do what you can because it’s the best thing to do and the right way to live, but know your culture for what it is: psychopathic: stuck, incorrigible, incapable of change or learning.’

    Martin Shaw spoke about this, or something like it, at last year’s Prophets of Rock and Wave gathering. That the bind we are in lies beyond the scope of political or psychological solutions – that we find ourselves in the deep grip of the mythic realm…the underworld. (Martin read a late poem of Robert Bly’s which spoke to this beautifully, that I’ll post when I can find it. It stayed with me above all else talked of that weekend.)

    “The underworld is not a theory, nor even a story. It is a mythic place, where only psyche matters and nothing else.” Hillman’s understanding of the underworld (here from The Dream and the Underworld) seems very close, to me, to what Dark Mountain have brought to the cacophony of voices arguing over how to right the ship, how to plug the holes.

    Your probably know it, but there’s an online PPF here http://aras.org/docs/00031McLeanHillman.pdf of a great essay Hillman co-wrote with his wife, the painter Margot McLean, near the end of his life. It’s a sort of creative manifesto, for me – I keep coming back to it’s poetry. It’s also full of that playful delight and lightness of touch that Hillman brings – and that I seem to have entirely missed, here.

    This passage stuck in my head, from what you wrote above:
    ‘Civilisations fall because, as native and archaic myths tell us, we fall into matter and neglect our light and fiery natures and our connection to dimensions beyond the one-dimensional here and now.’

    For me, you name the ground, here, from which to turn around and face another direction, even as we are carried on the unstoppable wave that bears us all along. The sense of overwhelming futility that I am filled with by muscular talk of smashing the system, or for that matter buying it more time through earth-surgery, is displaced by the unconditional value of what you propose here.

    What would it look like, feel like, to live from that light and fiery ground? How would that re-inform the details – however pedantic or token – of our moment to moment abstentions – walking instead of driving, opposing whatever further damage we can, stepping aside from the consuming machine? I have very little to show for myself, but am grateful for the chance to keep working on it, and for all those who remind me there are always alternatives to sleep-walking and supermarkets.


    1. Dear Mat,

      Thank you. Your response quite made my day! I will look forward to reading Hillman’s manifesto.

      I haven’t read any Hillman for a long time now, but I always remember a story he once wrote about a boy who was beseiged by what he called the Icarus syndrome. There seemed no way out for him. One morning out of the blue, the boy gets up and joins a student drama group, and all his problems fly away.

      Here’s to walking the light and fiery territory.

      With best wishes,


      Best wishes,


  3. It seems to me that the narratives of our time are dominated by betrayal, anger, revenge, and hatred. The popularity of fantasy fiction, with it’s naked brutality, shows what the majority of the touch-screen generation wants in a story. What we look for in fiction, we find in life. When will our made-up stories begin to take us where we want to go?


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