Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The Dark Coil in contact with Gestalt Therapy - Fourth Entry

Spoiler warning for Requiem Infernal: While I've tried to keep plot details out of the other articles altogether or at least as vague as possible, in this article I'll talk in detail about the arc of one of the main characters from the novel Requiem Infernal. If you want to avoid spoilers, you can skip ahead to the fifth entry of this series

Rings of Separation

Her face was tattooed with concentric rings, the first shearing through her forehead, cheeks and chin, the second encircling her eyes and mouth and the third set directly between her eyes. Voyle knew she bore a fourth and final ring, but its lines were invisible, for it embraced the mind. (The Greater Evil)

The ‘Rings of Unity’ are one of the many recurring symbols in Peter Fehervari’s Dark Coil stories. They’re a sign of allegiance employed by those humans that try to shake off the joke of Imperial oppression for the promises of freedom and equality whispered by the propagandists of the alien T’au empire. As with almost every symbol or motif of the Coil, it repeats itself across various stories and presents itself in slightly different contexts every time. For the protagonist of The Greater Evil, an Imperial soldier who defected to the T’au, it’s a symbol of the hope for peace - both for his race and his soul. For the Inquisitorial agent from Fire & Ice it’s a mark of aversion: “Despite its simplicity, there was something inherently alien about the symbol that repelled him”. And in Requiem Infernal, the symbol gets twisted both in form and meaning when it is encountered near the site of a daemonic incursion.

It’s not the Rings of Unity themselves that will be the topic of this entry in my series of articles on Gestalt therapy and the Dark Coil, but instead something they reminded me of: The psychological model of Gestalt therapy’s Five-Layer Model of Neurosis and how I see it reflected in the arc of one of the protagonists of Requiem Infernal, Jonah Tythe.

In the late 1960’s Fritz Perls spoke about something he called “the layers of the neurotic personality”. It was essentially a phenomenological description of the experience, identifications, and behaviors of people who have substituted what he referred to as “character” for the fluid self.

Perls saw “character” as being a product of adaptation to the expectations and requirements of the external world. This adaptation then becomes frozen, or reified, so that it is not a temporary adaptation, but rather a “self concept” which the person believes is who s/he “is”.

So, while Perls (and Gestalt theory) saw a healthy “self” as that which is always forming, changing, and creatively adjusting with that which is new, “character” is stale, unchanging, and persistent. And, Perls believed, character is primarily responsible for people’s need to come to therapy – since their unchanging view of self and world interferes with their capacity to fluidly engage the changing world in the most optimal manner currently possible. (Cohen, 2014)

Perls conceptualised this process as a sequence of five layers, from the stale and inauthentic clishé as the outermost layer towards the spontaneous and authentic vitality of the explosive layer on the inside. The model is quite adaptive in its applicability and can be used as a lens to look at the different modes in which people engage with their environment and themselves, as a structure for the generation of neurosis as well as a view at the progression of the therapeutic process in general. At my institute, I also learned to use the layer model as sort of a map for the structure of the emotional field around a psychological wound or frustrated need of a person.

The five layers are:

  1. The Phony Layer (Perls), also called Clishé Layer (Cohen)
  2. The Phobic Layer (Perls), Games Layer or Layer of Constructed Self and World (Cohen)
  3. The Impasse (which, according to Cohen, Perls sometimes also referred to as "the phobic layer")
  4. The Implosive Layer (Perls) or Death Layer
  5. The Explosive Layer (Perls), Life Layer or simply Emergence (Cohen)

As you can see, the way that future Gestalt theorists and Perls himself during the decades of his working life named and defined these layers changed over time and there's no unanimous consensus on it in the Gestalt community. In my own explanations, I'll mostly reference Fritz Perls himself (Four Lectures, 1966) and quote heavily from Alan Cohen's article Layers of the Neurotic Personality from 2014. I'm also influenced by the writings of Stefan Blankertz & Erhard Doubrawa (Lexikon der Gestalttherapie, 2005) and the position of my own institute. All of those sources have slightly different ways of phrasing, defining and applying the layer model. I'll explain and apply the model in the following in a way that makes sense to me and that hopefully integrates some of the inconsistencies between my references.

When I visualise this model, it comes alive in my mind in a form reminiscent of Voyle's description of the Rings of Unity in The Greater Evil: four concentric circles around a fifth and final ring whose lines are invisible, for it embraces the heart.

So let's venture through the five layers and travel alongside the Mirror Walker across the pages of the Requiem Infernal.

First circle: Surface

Cliché Layer: This way of being and engaging in contact is best described as a manner of interacting with and acknowledging another without requiring or revealing much personal information. It may involve commenting on the weather, the elevator music, or the amount of pollen in the air. It is a functional way of interacting with people who one has no intention of engaging further with, or as a preliminary “feeling out” of another’s availability for further contact. (Cohen)

The first layer - the Clishé or phony layer - is characterised by surface level interaction and shallow contact. It's arguably the safest layer: close to nothing has to be revealed or gets demanded. I'll approach Jonah accordingly and at first simply provide a broad summary of his story in the novel.

Jonah is one of the two main protagonists of Requiem Infernal, the other one being Sister Azenath of the Last Candle. Both Azenath and Jonah are on their own respective journey of discovery (and hunt for redemption) and begin and end the novel seperated and on their own. They do accompany each other for a while, though, striking up a sort of alliance after meeting on Vytarn, sharing some of their secrets with - yet still withholding much from - the other. Azenath deserves her own entry, so I'll stick with Jonah for this one.

The first time the reader meets Jonah is in the ruins of Hive Carceri on his homeworld Sarastus. The world has fallen victim to a supernatural calamity and Jonah ekes out a squalid existence there, trying to survive in the ghoul-haunted streets and provide for his ailing sister Mina. To find a way out, he accepts a job to bring a stolen book to a mysterious, silver-eyed stranger who turns out to be some kind of sorcerer. By the end of his rendezvous with the stranger Jonah is left with a third eye in the form of a bullet wound between his eyes, the strange book bound to his soul and Mina vanished from their shared hide-out. Jonah vows to take revenge on the stranger and rescue his sister.

The first time that Azenath meets Jonah is on the ferry that grants passage to the archipelago of the Koronatus Ring on Vytarn, the 'Candleworld'. An indefinite amount of time has passed since the events on Sarastus and Jonah is posing as a roaming preacher. Despite their secrecy, the two grow to trust each other, sensing that they're both attuned to the strange goings-on on the Archipelago and that they're both seeking something essential to them there.

Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that decades have passed since Jonah took on his hunt for the silver-eyed stranger who took his sister. He has been travelling across space and time to take down the rogue he has come to identify as Olber Vedas, a sorcerer who seems to be manipulating time itself to achieve his goals. On Vytarn, Vedas has installed himself as the head of the Last Candle, Azenath's former sect whose secrets she is trying to decipher. Now, Jonah is determined to finally get a hold of Vedas and end his hunt once and for all.

Second circle: Construct

[Jonah] didn’t believe the Imperium’s distant god gave a damn about His subjects. More to the point, he was pretty sure the ancient fraudster was long dead, even if His great con on humanity was still running strong. The heretical book Jonah had stolen was right – only a fool would swallow the lies proclaiming mankind’s manifest destiny, or any other higher purpose for that matter. The only truths were the ones men and women wrought themselves, and even the finest were etched in sand.

'Did you ever believe your own lies?' Jonah asked the Corpse-God he professed to serve. (Requiem Infernal, Ch. 3)

While entering the second circle, let's hear Alan Cohen again:

While Cliché Layer reveals very little of the person, Games Layer begins to reveal the person’s way of organizing self and world. Perls borrowed the term “Games” from Eric Berne’s “Games People Play”, which described reified patterns in how people engage in “inauthentic” and “dysfunctional” behavior. I think that “Games” is no longer an optimal descriptor, and can be confused with accusing people of purposely “playing games”. Actually, most often people are not aware of their reified patterns of behavior, and their role definitions that characterize this “layer”. So, I prefer to describe this as the layer of Constructed Self and World. While not as catchy as “Games”, I think it is more descriptive.

Jonah Tythe does indeed play games: Games that he plays with others and which he is fully aware of and deliberate about…but also games with himself that he is not. Let's look at those in turn.

Jonah is deliberately obscuring his identity for the whole book, playing the role of a wandering priest to those around him. This gives him leeway and a certain kind of authority over those around him, as the religious figures of the Imperium are seldom questioned about their purpose and are assumed to have their reasons for doing as they do. He's adaptive in this, too: When a high-ranking Sister of Battle questions him about a gruesome murder with ritualistic patterns, he quickly realizes that she's seen through his charade of being a simple scribe. Instead, he quickly adapts his role and subtly shifts it towards a clerical warrior against the heretical, someone who is indeed well aware of the powers of the Warp, but who is still framed in an acceptably dogmatic mindset.

The truth is, of course, all the more darker and more personal:

Dark drops of blood spattered onto the page. Within moments they were gone, devoured by the hungry parchment. Jonah snatched his hand away in disgust. The book had been leeching off his soul forever, but he was damned if he’d throw his lifeblood into the bargain.

Damned? Jonah chuckled grimly at the thought.

‘We’re a little past that, aren’t we,’ he confided to the heretical tome. Of course he was the heretic now, for it was his words that filled most of its pages – his impressions and intuitions that nourished it. The book’s esoteric preface had been the seed for everything that followed, both in his writing and his quest, for one fed the other, each hard-spun passage offering hints to some new avenue of investigation, which would invariably yield fresh horrors and darker insights to record and reflect upon. It was a self-fulfilling sacrifice to a story that went nowhere but down, dragging him a little further with every page completed and every step taken forwards.

Jonah is well aware that he has become a heretic indeed, filling the tome bound to his soul with his thoughts and feelings, using sorcery and arcane knowledge whenever necessary to progress on his quest. On his hunt for Vedas, he does not care one iota for the opinions and values ascribed to his methods by Imperial dogma, only for their usefulness to his hunt. Catching Vedas and finding his sister is, to him, paramount to any considerations towards the stain it might leave upon his supposedly immortal soul.

But what about the roles he is not aware of playing? What about him is an artifice without him even realising it?

Cohen explains:

In this Layer, or mode of functioning, people tend to have fixed ideas about themselves, and fixed ideas about others, and even the larger world. These ideas are pre-constructed, so they do not take into account the ever-changing nature of self or world, and they preclude the person even noticing any other possibility.

These pre-constructions tend to be introjected elements of the world they have lived in. So, they may be ideas of self based on how their early environment treated them (“I’m the stupid one”, or “I’m the golden child”), what they were told about themselves (“I need too much”), what they were told about the world (“you can’t trust anyone”), etc. They may also be reified experiences of how things were for them (“everyone has more than me”), or reifications of successful creative adjustments – “I’m a joker” (e.g. for someone who learned to use humor to ease an explosive family environment).

But in any case, whether based on experience or what they were told (which then becomes an experience), these are pre-constructed ideas which are super-imposed on both the person and others, and are usually out of awareness. So there is a script that tends to repeat, regardless of the environment or the circumstance.

Jonah is a man on a mission. In fact, there’s barely anything else to him other than his mission. We don’t learn much of what Jonah’s life was like before True Night fell on Sarastus. He was the son of an abusive father, a lowly transcriptor who acted like a high priest, who drilled Jonah to memorise the scriptures of the church, but who only ever managed to instil contempt rather than inspire faith in his son.

The years he’d wasted following in his father’s footsteps, vacantly transcribing holy texts in the Ecclesiarchy Conservatorium, had attuned him to memorising drivel. He could reel off as much scripture as any priest – and with more counterfeit conviction than most! [...] (Requiem Infernal; Prologue)

After True Night falls on Sarastus, Jonah is getting by on work as a watchman. When we meet Jonah in the prologue of Requiem Infernal his life has already seemingly collapsed unto a single role: caretaker and protector of his sister Mina. Already, her well-being and safety - both in body and soul - is being used by Jonah as justification for violence and murder:

As always, Jonah had planned his route meticulously using the maps he’d scavenged from a gutted Arbites station in the first days. That prize had cost him heavily, forcing him to make his first kill – a dying officer who’d fired on him as he rifled through the wreckage. It had taken several blows with an iron bar to put the armoured man down. Did that still count as a murder after the Fall?

‘Only if you enjoyed it’, Jonah assured himself, as he did every time he took a life. Now it sounded like something the book might say.

‘They were all for her,’ he told the night, as if it cared. (Requiem Infernal; Prologue)

Jonah has turned his sister- or rather, the idea of his sister - into both an idol and a guiding star for his life.

To him Mina’s grace was inviolate. Under the grime and dissolution he still recognised the sister who had shielded him from their father’s violence whenever he’d misquoted a psalm or stumbled over a catechism. Later, when he was older, she had stopped him from striking back, somehow always finding a way to rein in his rage. Without her he would have become a monster long before the monsters were everywhere.

‘I’m doing this for her, father’, he thought fiercely. If the old man had lived past the beginning of the end he would have been appalled by the things his son had done to survive, but Jonah didn’t regret any of it. Truth to tell, the Fall had freed him. (Requiem Infernal; Prologue)

After his fateful meeting with the silver-eyed stranger, Mina vanishes from their shared hide-out. Jonah is sure that the stranger has somehow abducted her - and Jonah adapts, expands, transforms his chosen role accordingly: Now he is the hunter of the heretic he will later come to know as Olber Vedas.

In this role, Jonah is far removed from his fluid, adaptable self, unifying his capabilities, thoughts and feelings into his chosen purpose.

‘Mina,’ Jonah gasped as he ran. ‘Vedas.’ The names swung back and forth in his mind with every step. Together they seemed to encompass everything he’d become and might yet be. (Requiem Infernal; Ch. 12)

To himself, he seems incapable of choosing any other path. Viewed from the outside, it seems more like a question of being unwilling to step on a different path. The novel even comments on it in a rather ingenious way:

He’d lost track of all the worlds he’d walked upon, and the years spent roaming the void between them under myriad names and guises. Eventually he’d also stopped counting the corpses left in his wake, some of them intentional, most not. There was a time when the death toll had troubled him, then tormented him, but he’d learnt to let it go and keep his eyes on the road ahead. What else was there?

The novel than makes a paragraph break and “cuts away” to a flashback:

‘You could just walk away,’ the officer who has blocked Jonah’s path suggests reasonably.

‘What?’ Jonah says, taken aback.

‘I said walk away!’ the man snarls, his manner changing abruptly, as if a switch in his head has been flipped. ‘This area is off-limits, citizen!’

Between Jonah’s ruminations in the present and his memory of the soldier of the past, the novel presents the argument over the inevitability of Jonah’s purpose in the simplest of terms: “What else is there?” “You could just walk away.”

Then there is the matter of Jonah’s anger. As I have mentioned above, Jonah has been prone to violent action at least since True Night fell on Sarastus. Despite this, there is a part of him that he goes to great lengths to shackle: his rage.

It’s already in the paragraph describing his first kill: “Did that still count as murder after the Fall? ‘Only if you enjoyed it’, Jonah assures himself [...]”. Even in moments of extreme stress and violence, Jonah reduces his actions to clinical acts of destruction, omitting the emotion that spurs him to or at least naturally accompanies them.

Jonah puts a las-bolt through her jaws. As she falls and her followers scramble towards him in a gibbering swarm he opens fire, cutting them down like vermin. It feels good. Down here in this filthy techno-warren, beset by abominations and the ugly truth of himself, Jonah almost gives in to his ever-faithful rage. It has always been there, simmering under the skin of his thoughts like a hot coal buried in ashes. (Ch. 5)

I'll return to this moments further down, but for now I'll he just note that he only almost gives in to his “ever-faithful rage”. There seems to be an equilibrium of forces at play within him: the ever-present rage in his belly and an opponent force holding him back from fully experiencing it. Both are part of him, neither is willing to fully let go, and Jonah doesn’t fully understand either of them. He is at an Impasse.

Cohen explains:

[...] this Constructed Self is what people believe they are; they don’t see that it is something that has been constructed. And the Constructed World is what they believe the world is. And the relationship between the two remains stagnant – the only change is how the pieces are arranged.

So, the self is identified with specific ideas, and this has significant consequences, including the following: other possibilities literally do not exist in the person’s awareness; and when they do (and are not dismissed as foolishness or whatever), they are literally experienced as a threat to one’s existence!

This reminds me of the story of Columbus’ voyage, in which the crew believed that going beyond the boundaries of the known world would result in falling off the edge of the earth into nothingness. And that is a perfect metaphor for the impasse…

Third circle: Threshold

Since in the neurotic personality self is not fluid, but is reified into a concept of self/world (see Constructed Self), that person’s ability to see the actual is impaired. There is also a belief (not necessarily in awareness) that one’s actual existence is dependent on this construction. It is “who and what I am”.

And we tend to do what Columbus’ crew would have liked to do: we stop before we go over the edge. We make progress in the process of change, and then somehow we get stuck. We return to old ways of being. We feel hopeless about things ever changing for us (while we continue to act in old, unsatisfying ways).

In this case, Fritz [Perls] would say that we are at an impasse. That is, we have gotten to the edge of the impasse and then stopped. So, we feel stuck – and we are – because we intuitively fear what would come next if we did not stop.

The layer called the Impasse is the debilitating point of equilibrium between aversion to what has to be experienced in the Death Layer and yearning for what is kept out of touch by it in the Life Layer.

It's the point at which people usually visit therapy. Their usual mode of being - their Constructed Self - has become unsatisfying, unwieldy or unfit to deal with their current life situation. Despite it being obvious that there is some kind of problem, it seems impossible to pinpoint its exact location or nature, or if these are transparent enough - for example because their partner tells them repeatedly what they are missing from the relationship - they somehow get stuck again and again in trying to solve the problem or change themselves.

The impasse is experienced as confusion or frustration, a loop between the unsatisfying familiarity of how one is, the yearning for some living part of one's self that feels out of reach as well as the often diffuse, sometimes tangible fear of what would happen if one actually would change. Like Columbus' crew, we fear falling off the edge and thus keep sailing in circles in a world that feels safe and yet has become too small for us.

The aforementioned scene of Jonah almost giving in to his rage is an apt summary of how he keeps himself in his own Impasse:

[...] It feels good. Down here in this filthy techno-warren, beset by abominations and the ugly truth of himself, Jonah almost gives in to his ever-faithful rage. It has always been there, simmering under the skin of his thoughts like a hot coal buried in ashes. If he seizes it there will be a few moments of regret, then nothing but the sweet, red oblivion of wrath and one long payback for all the misery and spiteful mystery the galaxy has thrown at him. It would be capitulation and conquest in one. [...]

As always it is his sister who saves him. An instant before he surrenders to the madness he sees Mina’s mournful visage and remembers himself. If the fury takes hold of him – really gets its teeth into his soul – it won’t ever let go. If that happens he won’t find her, because he will stop looking. He’ll forget her. That can’t happen.

So Jonah sweeps the ashes back over the hot coal in his soul and turns himself to ice once more.

‘I am nothing,’ he says, and saying it makes it so.

Jonah's rage seems to be intrinsically linked to his memory and his ability to hold onto his lost sister. It's "either - or" - he feels like if he lives the one, he'll have to lose the other. At this point, Jonah's whole existence is built upon the belief that he can still save his sister and that he has to hunt down Olber Vedas. Mina and Vedas, the two names that seem to encompass everything he'd become and yet might be. Jonah fears that fully experiencing his rage would shake this bedrock of his existence, so forbids himself from doing so.

So he says that he is nothing, and saying it makes it so.

Fritz Perls calles this process of shutting off undesired, harmful or threatening parts of one's emotional landscape "deadening". A living part of oneself - an emotion, a need, a yearning - gets numbed almost to the point of being non-existent.

An apt metaphor for this process of deadening is the numbness of Jonah's body. Ever since his meeting with Vedas and the magical bullet striking his forehead, cursing and blessing him with a purpose and the abilities to pursue it, Jonah’s body has become almost insensitive to pain. Jonah has become numb to sensory experience beside particular extremes, leading to him making a habit of plucking, picking and scratching himself until he bleeds just to feel something. In addition, his body is regenerating tremendously fast and ageing doesn't seem to affect him - in the final chapters of the book it is revealed that Jonah has kept on hunting Vedas for over three hundred years.

Jonah bemoans these changes as a curse and spent the early years of his quest trying to find a cure for them (to no avail). And yet, this state of being literally between life and death - of being able to shrug off pain and damage that would stop others in their tracks, but being shut off from truly experiencing the sensation of being alive - is what enables him to keep pursuing his quest for as long as he does. It's what allows him to keep his Constructed Self from ever collapsing.

But what happens when his journey reaches its end? What happens to a hunter's purpose when they manage to catch their prey?

Fourth circle: Void

The Games Layer is essentially constructed due to the paucity of adequate support for the actual emerging self. An environment that is too overwhelmed or emotionally impoverished to offer support for someone who is grieving, or frightened, or even joyous will largely result in a construction of self which eliminates these unsupportable expressions of self. To be sad in an environment that does not offer support is painful. To be angry in an environment which might attack you or shun you for your anger is dangerous.

And so we go on as if we do not feel what we feel and do not need what we need. And as long as the constructed self is mistaken for the emergent self, these unsupported parts of experience will be interrupted through the various maneuvers in the person’s repertoire of contact interruption. But largely, they must be retroflected until the experience of them (grief, anger, fear, joy, etc) is deadened. Once deadened, these elements of self are “safely” out of touch – out of awareness.

But, as the early Gestalt Psychologists told us, the organism is constantly seeking to complete itself, and these elements, needs, emotions are present, although frozen, deadened. And when the Constructed Self is deconstructed through the impasse experience, often what is emergent is the deadened self, seeking completion. (Cohen, 2014)

Ultimately - inevitably - Jonah enters Vedas' lair at the end of the book. He and his companions have to fight through a further series of obstacles which cost most of his party their lives and/or sanity, but it's never in question that Jonah himself will get to confront Vedas. Everything he has done and learned on his long road has prepared him for this moment, and he manages to evade death and dissolution on his final steps towards his nemesis. In the end, he faces Vedas alone. Jonah finally gets the answers he has been looking for. And the answer is that he has been deceived.

Not deceived by Vedas, necessarily, but by himself. Vedas reveals to Jonah that he never abducted Jonah's sister in the first place, but that she was already dead at the time of the first meeting between him and Jonah, killed by the first pulse of True Night, the supernatural catastrophe that ravaged Jonah's homeworld. In a haunting scene, Jonah realises - or rather: actually allows himself to see for the first time - that he had been talking to himself way back in the hideout that he was sharing with the preserved body of his late sister. He couldn't - wouldn't - accept the reality of what had happened to her. Mina was too important to him, her loss too big to bear.

With Mina, Jonah did not only lose a beloved person, but his personal sense of purpose and meaning. It's not explicitly said so in the text, but I feel there's also a strong sense of guilt in Jonah, which would explain his seething rage in part as a form of projected auto-aggression.

It's easy to imagine the approaching wave of convoluted grief, despair, guilt, rage against himself and an uncaring universe as well as a feeling of meaninglessness that the young Jonah was faced with and a part of him simply saying…No to. As Cohen phrased it, Jonah had a paucity of adequate support for his actual emerging self in this situation, so instead of experiencing emotions that he felt were overwhelming and un-bearable for him - the self-destructive rage, the crushing grief and the loss of his established sense of meaning and direction - Jonah instead constructed a role and indeed a personal reality around the idea of Mina still being alive and in his care. But it was a hollow victory: Jonah was stuck on a dead world, surrounded by ashes and ghosts, and his emotions were dulled and deadened, but still there, just kept out of reach. So a part of him yearned for change:

'[...] we share the same ordeal, Jonah Tythe. Suffering forges the most potent of bonds, especially when embraced willingly.’

‘I didn’t ask for any of this!’

‘You asked why.’

‘What?’ Jonah frowned, his fury blindsided.

‘Why,’ the chorus insisted. ‘Why did your world die? Why your sister? You needed to make sense of Chaos, Jonah Tythe. I gave you the tools and the tenacity to make the attempt.’


‘I heard your call in the firmament and recognised you, Mirror Walker.’ The chorus was growing thinner as its numbers diminished, but there was still no trace of concern in its tone. ‘I answered and gave you purpose.'

Jonah's constructed self on Sarastus had grown stale and unfulfilling. A lively part of him wanted to ask questions, needed to find passion and purpose, seeking completion by integrating his ostracised emotions, but these were precisely the things that he had to shun in order to not endanger the protection that his construct of a self offered him from his overwhelming grief and anger. So Vedas latched onto Jonah's yearning and offered him a new role, a fresher, more sustainable version of his constructed self: that of the hunter in pursuit of the monster, the lone knight on the quest to save the abducted princess. And Jonah embraced it, for it allowed him to stay within the safety of his established "game" and yet live parts of his personality that he formerly had to shun having access to.

For Vedas, it is a symbiotic relationship that binds himself and Jonah in an endless cycle of timelines:

[...] here you stand once more, Mirror Walker – my constant judge and furious executioner! By book and by bad blood you always track me down when I flounder, trapped in my own failures, but too wilful to end myself.

Vedas the creator, Jonah the ender, the latter being the forest fire that burns away the flawed attempts of the former to make way for a new cycle. For Vedas, it is an endless loop of occult-scientific endeavours; for Jonah and the people caught in Vedas machinations an ever-turning spiral of suffering.

Jonah's avoidance of parts of his self keep him engaged in that dance, but when his constructed self crumbles at last, he is faced with everything he has suppressed for so long: Jonah sees what is right in front of him. And his world, at least for a moment, changes for it.

[...] when the Constructed Self is deconstructed through the impasse experience, often what is emergent is the deadened self, seeking completion. The experience of this may be powerful, or faint. It may be brief or prolonged. In any case, there tends to be some awareness of a feeling that is “inside” of us that isn’t yet moving into expression.

Perls called this “layer” the Implosive Layer, since important aspects of self had been imploded in order to keep them out of awareness. He also referred to this as the Death Layer, since the emerging self had been (and continued to be) deadened.

I prefer to eliminate this nomenclature and stick with “Implosive”, since many people misunderstand “Death Layer” to mean experiences that can kill you, or a part of the self that is by nature “dark”. This is not so, since these are aspects of self that are completely normal and in the every day realm of human experience. There is no particular drama to this and in current terms (in one’s adult life; in the presence of a safe, supportive therapist) there is no particular danger. We are simply talking about aspects of self which were experienced to be too painful or too dangerous to support in an earlier developmental stage (usually), and a different context.

Fifth circle: Heart

In this case, there is quite a lot of drama to the process, and I feel that the fantastical events of Fehervari's story are a twisted, but in their own way apt, metaphor for what it can feel like to experience the passage through the Implosive/Death Layer. Jonah experiences his repressed rage in a mad rush that literally sets the world on fire: due to the strange metaphysical interconnections on the planet, reality reacts to Jonah's emotions by turning the oceans of Vytarn into seas of molten lava and filling the storm-charged air with torrid ashes.

But with the experience of the actual, in this case his fully experienced rage, comes more to the fore, and Jonah finally gets in touch with his sister again: His memory of her - or indeed her ghost, depending on how you want to look at it - starts communicating with Jonah again. This is not the reunion that Jonah was aiming for with his fervent hunt for Vedas, but it's the only one that's left to him: engaging with the memory of his sister as someone who he can deeply, intimately and fully grieve for, not as some phantasm that he has to put in an eternal prison of expectation just to hold off on accepting her loss.

There is not a quote in Requiem Infernal that I can point to that directly says so and verbatim explains Jonah's emotional process regarding that. But it is the way that I read the scenes from the crossing of the bridge to Spire Veritas in Chapter Nine onwards. There is a sense of Jonah slowly coming to terms with something, and when he hears Mina's voice at long last again - urging him to restraint in his final confrontation with Vedas, just like she had done when they were kids and Jonah was fighting with their father - I feel like there's painful regret and a touching tenderness in Jonah, despite the violence he's enacting all around.

About what lies within once one has traversed the Implosive Layer, Cohen writes:

Explosive Layer: I have difficulty with this nomenclature for similar reasons to my difficulty with “Death Layer”. Again, people often think of this as loud shouting, painful wailing, or some such “explosion”. Some people have used “Life Layer” or Expressive Layer” to offer alternative descriptions of this experience; but neither feels quite right to me (although both may be preferable). In thinking of a description of the phenomenological experience of this “layer”, I prefer to use “Emergence” as a way to refer to this, since it describes the literal emergence of that aspect of self which had been deadened and hidden from aware experience.

In speaking of this “layer”, Perls is referring to the organism’s tendency to complete the incomplete situation – i.e. to express that which has gone unexpressed. So, that which has been imploded is released and allowed expression. Sadness which hasn’t been felt is now felt, and expressed (perhaps in a single tear, perhaps in a torrent); anger which has been frozen is felt, and perhaps voiced; shyness which had signaled a danger of ridicule can now be felt in its sweetness… In this “layer” of experience, there is completion, and there is also a broadening of self.

It is, I feel, an apt description for what Jonah experiences in the final Chapters of Requiem Infernal. It is, indeed, the one great victory that he achieves in the end - that after over three-hundred years of endless struggle and toil, he is finally able to experience himself fully again, if only for a moment.

Within and beyond: Mirror

Post Script/Integration: This experience must be integrated with the pre-existing “personality” in such a way that shifts some habitual ways of seeing self and world.

We all need some way of orienting, so that external and internal stimuli are not chaotic. We need to have some ground formed by past experiences that lends meaning to the arising figures of the present moment. And as such, we can never be entirely fluid, without pre-conceptions. But we can begin to hold these preconceptions lightly. We can be open to the impasse experience of allowing the emergence of the new to supersede the structures constructed of past contacts. We can be open to disorientation by developing a sense of curiosity and a trust in new emergences. And by developing trust in our capacity to re-orient and form new, yet provisional, roadmaps of self and world.

Indeed, going beyond the edge of the world can lead to a New World.

The story of Jonah Tythe and his hunt for Olber Vedas is a tragedy: Both the strengths and flaws of the hero become the seeds of his undoing. In this case, Jonah is unable to end his hunt because he is unwilling to let go of it.

Despite the better knowledge that he is keeping on playing into Vedas' hand and against the counsel of his better angel, the memory of his late sister, Jonah stays on the path of destruction: Vedas has to die.

To this point there's an earlier scene in Requiem that inverts the "vertigo of possibilities" that's commonly associated with entering the Death Layer (Philippson, Contemporary Challenges in the Application of Perls' Five-Layers Model, 2002). This "vertigo od possibilities" describes the feeling of anxiety and uncertainty that comes with the freedom achieved by stripping oneself of the clishes and roles of ones Constructed Self when breaking the Impasse. For this moment, there are no rules and preconstructed ideas to bind one, so one has infinite directions to go into, yet also no firm ground to stand upon: a situation that elicits existential dread and yet allows for the spontaneity of a fluid self.

In Requiem Infernal, Jonah enters a scene that at first seems almost like a literary metaphor for this vertigo: upon the final step towards Vedas' inner sanctum, Jonah passes through a dimension of mirrors, all showing different versions of himself, splintered across time and space. But the scene then turns out to be a tragic inversion of the vertigo of possibilities because instead of showing truly different directions for Jonah to choose from, all of these different versions of Jonah point in the same direction: to find and kill Olber Vedas. It seems that no matter what decisions Jonah makes along the way, he always ends up in the same place and within the same cycle, repeating it over and over again.

In the closing moments of his confrontation with Vedas, Jonah, with all truths laid out before him, has a final decision to make: Abandon his quest or go through with what's by then revealed as being nothing but vengeance.

He makes his choice: Jonah fires his final bullet, the one he had inscribed with Olber Vedas' name, just as his nemesis knew he would, just as the ghost of his sister hoped he wouldn't.

What follows is one of my favourite sequences of any novel I have ever read: Jonah's bullet punches through Vedas' head, but doesn't stop there, instead travelling through space and time to shoot out of the mirror that young Jonah's gun shattered all those centuries ago, way back during his first meeting with then-nameless silver-eyed stranger. Both bullets pass through each other and strike their unintended targets: the bullet from the past kills ancient Jonah in the future while the bullet from the future curses young Jonah with the next cycle of his quest.

It's a dizzying scene, executed beautifully, that ties Jonah's story into a tragic circle: his fixation on his established mode of being literally keeps him trapped in the same old pattern, a generational conflict with himself perpetuated ad infinitum. Jonah does not integrate his experiences and does not "re-orient and form new, yet provisional, roadmaps of self and world", but merely forces himself into the next round of his game.

And so the coil eternal twists itself into another winding. Nothing is chance.


Thus ends my account of the Five Layers, Jonah Tythe and the Requiem Infernal. This is my longest entry to the series yet, so if you've come along this far, thank you for persevering. I hope I could make it worth your time.

Until next time.

The spiral turns: Continue here with the fifth part.

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