February 2, 2023
I have always been struck by a repeated assertion of one of my heroes, humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, about those people he called self-actualized. In an essay called “Self-Actualizing and Beyond,” he says:
Self-actualizing people are, without one single exception, involved in a cause outside their own skin, in something outside of themselves. They are devoted, working at something, something which is very precious to them—some calling or vocation in the old sense, the priestly sense. They are working at something which fate has called them to somehow and which they work at and which they love, so that the work-joy dichotomy in them disappears. (42)
Most of the self-actualized characteristics Maslow enumerates are fairly expectable, but this one always catches me by surprise. In another essay, “A Theory of Metamotivation,” he reiterates the assertion, then goes on to say,
One gets the feeling of a beloved job, and, furthermore, of something for which the person is a “natural,” something that he is suited for, something that is right for him, even something that he was born for. It is easy to sense something like a pre-established harmony or, perhaps one could say, a good match like the perfect love affair or friendship, in which it seems that people belong to each other and were meant for each other. (291)
Later in the same essay, he writes, “Such vocation-loving individuals tend to identify (introject, incorporate) with their ‘work’ and to make it into a defining-characteristic of the self. It becomes part of the self” [his italics]. If one asks such a person,
“Supposing you were not a scientist (or a teacher, or a pilot), then what would you be?...It is my impression that his response is apt to be one of puzzlement, thoughtfulness, being taken aback, i.e., not having a ready answer. Or the response can be one of amusement, i.e., it is funny. In effect, the answer is, “If I were not a mother (anthropologist, industrialist), then I wouldn’t be me. I would be someone else.” (296)
What is remarkable, and which raises a certain resistance when I teach Maslow in class, is that this is theoretically a character trait of all human beings, for to think that by self-actualized people Maslow is referring to a special elite is to misunderstand him completely. Self-actualization is what all human beings have the potential to be. If self-actualized people are rare, it is a failure of our society, which stunts people, and not a limitation of our nature. So I ask students: “Maslow’s theory is an attempt to democratize what traditionally—in ‘the priestly sense’---used to be regarded as exceptional. Here you are in college, trying to decide what to do with your life. Do you feel that you need to have a vocation, a calling, and not just a job or career? Do you think you are lacking something if you do not have a calling?” Some certainly do not agree—in fact they don’t even know what Maslow is talking about. A few get it immediately, however, often those majoring in theatre, musical theatre, or music performance. For them, a vocation is exactly why they are here, sometimes coming from out of state and auditioning to get into our programs. They know perfectly well what kind of risk they are taking majoring in these enormously competitive fields, with no practical degree to fall back on if they fail to make it in their field. But they have a dream, and nothing will deter them.
But we have not answered the question, for these are students with special talents, or so they hope. What of the rest of the student population? When you advise students, the question looms large. Of the self-actualized, Maslow says, “All, in one way or another, devote their lives to the search for what I have called…the ‘being’ values (‘B’ for short), the ultimate values which are intrinsic, which cannot be reduced to anything more ultimate” (42). These are the big values, like truth and beauty and justice, well known from ancient times. Many of the students know from a psychology class about Maslow’s hierarchy of basic needs, an ascending ladder from the physiological to safety needs, to love, to self-esteem, to self-actualization as the top rung. These lower needs are values, but they are D-values, deficiency values. When Maslow asked himself what motivates SA people (his abbreviation), since their deficiency values are fulfilled, his answer was the B-values, which he called “metamotivations,” beyond the level of the basic needs. It is no good talking about B-values and vocations to students whose basic needs are not met, however. They have anxieties about economic survival, maybe even an anxiety about food. Practical education serves the D-values, and liberal education that serves the B-values is dwindling in popularity in an increasingly insecure society. The students are not Philistines; they are scared, and they have reason to be.
When Maslow himself was teaching in the 60’s, students were more likely to arrive at university with their basic needs fulfilled, at least at an elite school like Brandeis, where he taught. So he would challenge them with what he called the Jonah complex, the temptation to run away from one’s calling. God called Jonah, and Jonah ran in the opposite direction because he was afraid. Maslow secularizes the syndrome:
We fear our highest possibilities (as well as our lowest ones). We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments…I have found it easy enough to demonstrate this to my students simply by asking, “Which of you in this class hopes to write the great American novel, or to be a Senator, or Governor, or President? Or a great composer? Who aspires to be a saint, like Schweitzer, perhaps? Who among you will be a great leader?” Generally, everyone starts giggling, blushing, and squirming, until I say, “If not you, who else?” (35).
Of his graduate students, he will ask, “What great book are you now secretly planning to write?” (35). He warns them: “If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life” (35).
Let me suggest that there might be two levels of vocation, corresponding to the medieval and Renaissance distinction between the Active and the Contemplative life. The active level of vocation is focused on this world, and aspires to make it a better place. In Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye defines archetypal symbolism in such terms:
In its archetypal aspect, art is a part of civilization, and civilization we defined as the process of making a human form out of nature….An archetypal symbol is usually a natural object with a human meaning, and it forms part of the critical view of art as a civilized product, a vision of the goals of human work (104-05).
This is the vision celebrated ringingly in Blake’s poem “Jerusalem” (“And did those feet”):
I will not cease from Mental Fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand: Till we have built Jerusalem, In Englands green & pleasant Land.
The poem was set to music and makes a rousing hymn, but what is it rousing us to? What does it mean to build Jerusalem? Speaking to a general audience in The Educated Imagination, Frye brings the notion down to earth in a chapter significantly titled “The Vocation of Eloquence.” There, he says that “The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in” (140). Later, he continues:
But as soon as that notion dawns in the mind, the world we live in and the world we want to live in become different worlds. One is around us, the other is a vision inside our minds, born and fostered by the imagination, yet real enough for us to try to make the world we see conform to its shape. This second world is the world we want to live in, but the word “want” is now appealing to something impersonal and unselfish in us. Nobody can enter a profession unless he makes at least a gesture recognizing the ideal existence of a world beyond his own interests: a world of health for the doctor, of justice for the lawyer, a redeemed world for the clergyman, and so on. (492)
That last sentence sounds very much like Maslow’s realm of B-values, pursued by people who are called to the vocation of serving one of them. This kind of vocation is utopian in a way far beyond the kind of reductionistic social engineering that has so often passed for utopian thinking in the last two centuries. One of the best things about it is that it begins on a down-to-earth level associated with the significant phrase “vocational training.” The fact that the kinds of work implied by that phrase are at times looked down upon by those who aspire to more elite occupations like investment banker and computer programmer only shows what is wrong with our present class system. Landscaping, for example, which demands the ability to imagine how a certain property might be transformed and also the skills to bring it about, including arts in their own right like masonry and carpentry, quite literally helps build Jerusalem. Despite the introduction of computerized machinery, acoustic guitar making is still a craft and an art, involving knowledge of the qualities of various woods, of bracing techniques, of manual skills taught through apprenticeship, and so on.
In the Victorian age, people like John Ruskin and William Morris opposed the ideal of craftsmanship to capitalist mass production of cheap junk. They were derided for naively believing that a global economy could be retooled in the service of such an individualized vision, but I think the idea will be revisited, not out of idealism but out of necessity. Capitalism’s growth and development has depended upon the existence of an exploited, uneducated proletariat performing various kinds of manual labor, alienated labor, as Marx called it. Supply chain problems are teaching us the stupidity of outsourcing such work, but automation is fast eliminating it anyway: even collecting the garbage is done with robotic arms now. So young people go to college, are unmotivated, don’t learn much of practical value, and accrue a crushing load of debt, when they could apprentice themselves to some “vocational” trade. In the future, they might be able to do more than that. The elimination of unskilled work is eventually going to necessitate some kind of guaranteed minimum income, lest mass unemployment collapse the economy. At that point, Ruskin and Morris will have their revenge: we will see a reborn arts-and-crafts movement, aided by modern innovations such as Etsy, because it will be financially possible. It is the dream of many bookworm types to own a small bookstore, and, guess what, small bookstores have learned how to utilize the Internet to make a comeback when once it seemed that Amazon would monopolize all bookselling. Small publishers likewise. The implication is that if we think of “vocation” as some kind of elite calling limited to those with special gifts, then it is hard to understand how a vocation can be a necessary criterion for all human self-actualization. But Maslow probably did not mean that. He is redefining vocation as “labor of love,” suggesting that we re-define vocation a dedication to creative, meaningful work.
Another kind of vocation in this sense is dedication to some form of worthy service. Maslow’s criteria are an implicit critique of our society, and nowhere does our society fall short more dramatically than in the area of service work. Most service work is poorly paid, exploitative, low status. Nurses, teachers, secretaries, restaurant workers—such people are increasingly overworked and underpaid by a citizenry that seems to think of them more or less as slaves, whose workloads are steadily increased to make up for budget shortfalls. This includes warehouse and delivery workers for companies like Amazon and other slavedriver capitalist enterprises. A UPS delivery driver recently told me that he is supervised by camera while out on his route, meaning that UPS is adopting the bricks-without-straw methods of Jeff Bezos. But these are people jobs, and there are those whose vocation is other people, whose satisfaction lies in helping people while at the same time making the interaction warm and human. It is a capitalist ploy to portray utopia as some kind of sterile and coercive “social engineering.” That is rubbish: if you reformed our society to make common jobs human and satisfying, you would be halfway to utopia, and would eliminate many of our burgeoning mental health problems, including deaths of despair from opioids. But that would mean taking on the 1%, and would involve the kind of hardcore activism seen in the labor movement of the 30’s and the countercultural and social justice movements of the 60’s. I’m sure the 1% would not take it kindly if we made a bonfire out of all their copies of Ayn Rand.
The goals of human work are contemplative as well as active. Some people have a vocation for thinking, for dreaming and imagining, and there needs to be an ivory tower for them to do it in. We need the contemplatives to provide the visions Frye speaks of, the models of those worlds we want to live in and don’t want to live in but rather fight and abolish. The capitalist right and the radical-chic left have conspired to eliminate liberal education, the education that is liberated from the self-proclaimed real world so that it may critique that world with detachment and imagine alternatives to it. The conservative takeover of higher education has imposed upon it the most dubious ideals of the business world—of making professors and programs “productive” and pushing universities to become job-training centers. The left has fiddled while Rome burned, and the tune that literary theory has played has been radical skepticism conceived as a way of subverting the system and helping it towards its hopefully inevitable collapse. We now tell our most gifted students not even to think of graduate school in the humanities. There are no jobs, there are not going to be any, and the working conditions in those that exist are designed to keep people from having the energy and focus for thinking and dreaming. The powers that be do not want people to have the kind of leisure necessary for the contemplative vocation. The works produced by such people ask challenging questions and proffer alternatives to the present system, whereas the powers that be want everyone to resign themselves to the present system as inevitable.
We have been discussing vocation in terms of involvement with society, of an engagement that tries to recreate society in the light of its vision of a better world. Yet we also saw that this kind of activism is always in a necessary and productive tension with the contemplative need to detach from the world. Contemplative detachment implies a journey, a quest of the imagination with two possible directions, above the level of common life or below it, to the heights or the depths. To the degree that it intensifies, it becomes a quest beyond social limits altogether, even beyond the limits of the reality principle itself. Not many are willing to go on this quest beyond the borderline, into a realm of mystery. Perhaps it is these whom Jesus has in mind when he says that many are called but few are chosen. The quest takes place by means of liminal experiences that result in epiphanies, visions, revelations of what lies beyond common modes of perception and thinking, which is why the only possible vehicles for communicating such visions are myth and metaphor, which seem paradoxical and irrational to ordinary consciousness. Traditional or pre-modern mythology tends to privilege the ascent journey towards a transcendent goal at the top of the vertical axis mundi of the cosmos. For ideological reasons it tends to demonize the descent journey, as in Dante’s Inferno—at least officially, for tucked away in the intricacies of medieval Christian thought was also “negative theology,” the via negativa, which achieved detachment through a series of paradoxes about what God is not, and which often entailed a “dark night of the soul.”
In the Divine Comedy, Dante portrays himself as a character suffering an acute case of Maslow’s Jonah complex. When Virgil summons him to the quest, he stammers, “I am not Aeneas, I am not Paul”: I am not the hero who descended to the underworld or the saint who ascended to the “third heaven” and heard words that it is unlawful to repeat (II Corinthians 12:2-4). Nonetheless, down he goes, and then up, first to the bottom of hell and then up the mountain of purgatory to the garden of Eden at its top. There, he passes through a wall of flame and accomplishes the end of many quest journeys: he gets the girl, though it is more accurate to say that she rescues him than vice versa. But his quest, which has not yet left the earth, is far from over. He has reached what Frye in Anatomy of Criticism calls the point of epiphany, “the point at which the undisplaced apocalyptic world and the cyclical world of nature come into alignment…Its most common settings are the mountain-top, the island, the tower, the lighthouse, and the ladder or staircase” (189). This apex is a common place of vision. In the Bible, as Frye enumerates, there are Jacob’s ladder, the hill of the Transfiguration, the mountain Pisgah from which Moses saw the Promised Land. The five pages Frye devotes to this point and the ascent to it are expanded into two entire chapters of Words with Power, the ascent of wisdom in chapter 5 and the ascent of love in chapter 6. Dante does not stop at the point of epiphany, however, but continues ascending into heaven itself. In doing so, he is “transhumanized,” his mind and senses expanded beyond the normal limits of the human condition. The result is the Paradiso, the most daring attempt at an undisplaced apocalyptic vision until Blake’s Prophecies.
Those who are gathered up into the mystery of eternity may simply disappear into transcendence, like Elijah in his fiery chariot. Or they may return, but if they do, their attempt to communicate their vision will baffle common understanding, as the apocalyptic realm can only be spoken of through symbols and paradoxes. Not every visionary has the artistic resources of Dante or Blake, and some great visionaries, such as Jakob Boehme, could only babble in tongues. The early apocalyptic poetry of Dylan Thomas was widely dismissed as the work of a charlatan, a madman, or both. The great mystics were always in danger of being accused of heresy, and the Gnostic scriptures were condemned and suppressed. In contrast with the simple clarity of the New Testament, the Gnostic writings are wild and weird, sometimes sublime and sometimes confused and incoherent. In comparison with the philosophically disciplined Vedas and Upanishads, they are simply a mess. Yet it was the vocation of the Gnostics to boldly go where orthodox Christianity did not dare, to its impoverishment. One may simply find oneself one day outside of the safe walls of the conventional world, as Dante does in the first canto of the Inferno. Or one may ride out deliberately into the mysterious wood, as the Grail knights do, to the dismay of King Arthur who needs them for the task of building Camelot in England’s green and pleasant land. But they are drawn by the Grail, symbol of the transcendent mystery. What is the Grail, after all? It is part of its transcendent nature that it is different things to different questers. Sometimes it is a cup, identified in a Christian context as the vessel of the Last Supper. Sometimes it is a dish. In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parsifal, it is a stone, clearly identified with the lapis or Philosopher’s Stone of the alchemists. It is all of the above, and more.
There are descent quests of love and wisdom as well. Their goal is what in The Productions of Time I have called decreation, the uncreating of reality. Since reality is a mental construct, the decreative descent may take the form of a meditation that drives ordinary logic and language to their limits until they break down into paradoxes. The most famous Western example, the negative theology of the via negativa in the Middle Ages, has its Eastern counterparts in the paradoxical koans of Zen Buddhism, and the riddling aphorisms of the Tao te Ching, the first of which says that “The tao that can be spoken of is not the true tao.” Maslow belongs to the tradition of the ascent journey, and his B-values resemble Platonic Ideas grounded in empirical reality. The goal of the descent journey of lower wisdom is not a presence but an absence. The most influential philosophical descent in our time is that of Jacques Derrida’s philosophy of deconstruction, and the deconstructive process ends in aporia, the undecidable. It ends in absence, haunted nevertheless by a ghostly trace of where there should be meaning but isn’t quite. Like all forms of decreation, deconstruction is a kind of anti-Creation myth, unwinding the mummy cloth, to use an image of Yeats’, and may be either creative or nihilistic. I think it is no accident that a portion of Derrida’s later writing is on religion, some of it circling around the theme of “the impossible.”
Frye’s treatment of the decreative descent journey is chapter 7 of Words with Power, along with the corresponding chapter of The Secular Scripture. It is no accident that that chapter contains his discussion of the dying-god figures that Frazer studied in The Golden Bough. Those who descent risk a psychological version of the sparagmos or tearing-apart of the dying god. They risk madness. Nietzsche identified with the dying god Dionysus and suffered a Dionysian fate for it. Rimbaud had his season in hell. Dylan Thomas’s alcoholism, which killed him at the age of 39, was probably a displacement of a deeper kind of drunkenness. Who aspires to such a terrible vocation? A large number of both popular and high culture artists, from the blues and rock musicians doomed by their own intensity, to any number of risk-taking performance artists, painters like Jackson Pollack who are trying to decreate reality back into primal chaos, poets like Hart Crane who celebrated and despaired at the same time. Such people are unbuilding Jerusalem, revealing the abyss, the Nothing on which it stands. Both Frye and Joseph Campbell are fascinated by the figure of the shaman, whose vocation begins with a psychotic episode, and who flies, as Campbell says in “The Symbol without Meaning,” beyond the safe confines of order symbolized by the mandala. Those whose vocation is the ascent journey are prophets; those of the descent journey are rebels, Tricksters, antiheroes, figures of anarchism rather than order—but an anarchism necessary to all new creation, to life itself. Most of us are content to identify vicariously with these spiritual outlaws—but in fact we are fascinated by them, drawn to them by a lure deeper than common sense and social prudence.
What drives the quest is wisdom, but also, as Frye makes clear, the divine madness of love. There is the practical and companionate love that builds families and communities—and then there is the other kind, that lures to the borderland. Even the idealizing journeys of ascent are driven by a romantic love that cares nothing for social rules. The Courtly Love of the Middle Ages was always outside of marriage, and that includes Dante’s, who was married to Gemma Donati but who was called to eternity by Beatrice. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus renounces the priestly vocation and instead discovers the vocation of the artist. The angel of the annunciation is a young girl wading on the shore with her skirts hiked up so that he can see a hint of her underwear, erotic, innocent, lyrical. The women of the descent journey are another matter. The motto of those who follow their call is the title of an old folk-blues song: “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.” Perhaps the greatest modern exploration of the descent quest of love is John Crowley’s Aegypt tetralogy, whose protagonist—hero is decidedly the wrong word—Pierce Moffett, identifies his love madness with that of the strange book called the Hypnerotomachia Polifili (1499), which means the strife of manifold love in a dream. The protagonist of that work wanders interminably through a darkly ominous dreamscape seeking his beloved. Pierce’s name suggests Percival or Parsifal, the Grail quester, and the beloved is one form of the Grail. But Pierce is divided between a light and dark heroine, both named Rose, and develops an obsessive relationship with the dark one incorporating BDSM, for De Sade is one of the antiheroes of the dark descent quest. Shakespeare’s Sonnets have their Dark Lady, and in popular music it is the blues that gives us the most daring lyrics about the dark side of love, which is a part of love for all that, though it is not politically correct to admit it.
Frye quotes the following passage from Yeats:
The intellect of man is forced to choose Perfection of the life or of the work, And if it take the second must refuse A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
To which his response is: “It seems to me that the first two lines express a profound insight, and that the next two are self-dramatizing nonsense” (“Expanding Eyes,” 409). I rarely disagree with Frye, but here I am inclined to endorse the contrary opinion of Jung in an essay about “Psychology and Literature”:
Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument. The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him….That is his office, and it is sometimes so heavy a burden that he is fated to sacrifice happiness and everything that makes life worth living for the ordinary human being.” (101)
In a passage I have often quoted, Jung goes on to say, “A person must pay dearly for the divine gift of creative fire” (102). Those who remain to build Jerusalem may achieve some balance, but those whose vocation draws them outside the city limits into may have to offer up normal life and personal gratification, sometimes even their sanity, as a kind of sacrifice. After all, that is what Nikos Kazantzakis, in his novel of that title, called the last temptation of Christ: to renounce the road that led to Golgotha and live an ordinary life with Mary Magdalen.
A wonderful poem by W.H. Auden, “In Praise of Limestone,” is a celebration of all those who lack a vocation, of the “inconstant ones” who love limestone “chiefly / Because it dissolves in water,” soft and easily molded like themselves. It recognizes that “The best and the worst never stayed here long but sought / Immoderate soils.” These include “saints-to-be” and “intendant Caesars”:
But the really reckless were fetched
By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
"I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad."
Vocations are dangerous. They are a form of possession, and there is such a thing as a demonic vocation. As Yeats said, “The best lack all conviction while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Hitler and Putin have their beloved task. Don Quixote was noble, but also psychotic. Perhaps it is the vocation of the ordinary, of those who are soft and yielding like limestone, to counterbalance the driven ones. Don Quixote needed Sancho Panza. And perhaps those of us who are driven, who live at the extremity, may learn to internalize our Sancho Panza, our court jester, the voice that mocks our tragic sufferings and our pretensions until we come down to earth, back to our home, until we learn to laugh in the very moment we aspire.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Edited by Robert D. Denham. Volume 22 in The Collected Works of Northrop Frye. University of Toronto Press, 2006.
Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination. In “The Educated Imagination” and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1933-1963. Edited by Germaine Warkentin. Volume 21 of The Collected Works of Northrop Frye. University of Toronto Press, 2006. 436-94.
Frye, Northrop. “Expanding Eyes.” In “The Critical Path” and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1963-1975. Edited by Jean O’Grady and Eva Kushner. Volume 27 in The Collected Works of Northrop Frye. University of Toronto Press, 2009. 391-410, Originally published in Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society. Indiana University Press, 1976. 99-122.
Jung, C.G. “Psychology and Literature.” In The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. Volume 15 of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. 84-108.
Maslow, Abraham. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. Penguin, 1972.
It may be a feature of Marxist thinking to characterize what they do as a "vocation." We have Max Weber's two wooden Vocation Lectures, the brutally honest Canadian C.B. Macpherson, and Sheldin Wolin's "political theory as a vocation" chorus. But there are traces of the same bastardized aspirations in liberals like John Maynard Keynes and the water carrying Canadian, John Kenneth Galbraith, among many others. To me, vocation should be reserved for calling as the root suggests, whereas theoretical activists are better described as professionals, which is the more everyday business meaning of a Beruf. A Beruf—despite its similar literal meaning as vocatio—is expressed in urbane rhetoric more or less free from anxiety, whereas a calling indicates an obeisance to a voice of spiritual authority. And eloquence is a nice distinction to reserve for this discourse over against rhetoric. Curiously, almost the only appearances of eloquence at the moment come in plain clothes without collars.