Saturday, November 26, 2022

The Dark Coil in contact with Gestalt Therapy - Third Entry

Travelling at the boundary

Sitting down. Breathing in. Breathing out.

It's been almost two months since I last managed to write a word for this article series.

It has turned winter since then, a time that I used to - and still do - cherish for the feelings of calm and melancholy it invokes in me, but which for a few years now seems to revert in on itself and attract more appointments and obligations than all the months of the year that came before. And yet, it has its beauties.

The longer break from working on this article was in part constituted by the fact that I am - despite my confident proclamation in the first entry - still figuring out where I actually want to go, what I really want to say with it. I want to write some kind of testament to my love for Peter Fehervari's work, sure, and I want to combine that with an articulation of my fascination with Gestalt therapy.

But how so? And what else?

Explaining how Gestalt therapy works while using Warhammer fiction as an example? An accessible rundown of this school of therapy? I already did a version of the former for Narrative Therapy in Stories told by Monsters and I've already given the latter a shot in the preceding entry of this article series. I'm still worried that the latter was hardly something that many visitors on a website dedicated to the Horus Heresy are interested in, not to mention that smarter women and men than me have already written dedicated texts along this line.

So how to actually combine the Dark Coil and Gestalt therapy in a way that feels alive to me and is fun to write?

How to bring those two into contact?

This is a common question I ask myself when counselling couples or separated parents. How to enable these two persons, these two selves, whose relationship is probably fraught with fissures, resistances and frustrations, to make contact with each other? The answer is as simple as it is complex: I'm trying to assist them in actually speaking with each other, actually listening to each other, actually getting into resonance with each other, even if only for a few moments in the hour that we meet.

So how do the Dark Coil and therapy resonate with each other?

When I started taking notes for the concept of this article, that was the notion that was guiding me: That these stories felt like therapeutic stories to me. Not "therapeutic" in the sense that they provided solace or even healing to me in a particularly trying time - if these stories were that for anyone reading this, I'd love for them to reach out and talk to me about it. No, what I mean is that I feel echoes of the way I experience therapy as a psychologist and, indeed, as a client all over Fehervari’s writing.

It might sound like a clishé to say, but to me therapy is a journey to the self, a journey to, as Irvin Yalom says, "become who you are". Even while it's happening, it feels almost absurd to realise how much you can learn about yourself by talking to a stranger. And yet, the stranger is only assisting you in walking your own road of discovery, of understanding, of meaning - they can never walk it for you.

I feel like there is already a major point of resonance between the therapeutic process and the stories of the Dark Coil in this. Fehervari’s writing is deliberately mysterious and open to interpretation and personal association. The stories mostly follow no linear progression and there isn't a unified direction of chronology; while the stories themselves could, in theory, be roughly sorted across a chronological axis, there're all sorts of weird bumps and twists and turns in the temporal flow between them. Characters sometimes literally disappear from one story to appear in a different time and place altogether, and there are stories where time itself becomes warped and twisted upon itself.

Despite all this it needs to be said that the Coil is, in my opinion, not a frustratingly complex puzzle box. I never got the sense that the Coil can or even wants to be solved. To be honest, I would be quite disappointed if its author would at some point decide to tie it all together with a neat bow and call the case closed. But that's not what Fehervari seems to be interested in anyway: Instead, the Coil seems more interested in the stories and dramas, the mysteries and secrets, the experiences and psychological processes emerging from such a fundamentally broken universe.

Fehervari himself describes writing the Coil as a process guided by intuition and gut-feeling rather than by careful planning. Across his writing, the reader is in turn invited to come at every story from an angle of their choosing; every story can prime them to view whatever story they read afterwards in a different light, being more alert to certain themes or phrases and discovering new connections between the stories. It's the free flowing gestalt formation in action: figures of meaning emerge from the ground provided by a story and its reader, and as this ground shifts with further exposure of that reader to other Coil stories as well as with developments and changes in the reader's life outside of their reading time, so do the figures emerging from the same story.

Thus, the Dark Coil feels to me as being deliberately designed to be experienced as an individual journey of meaning, rather than a pre-constructed roller coaster with someone else operating the wheel. And don't get me wrong, I do love an expertly handled roller coaster, but that's simply not what Fehervari is doing here. His web of stories is more akin to an echo of the process of therapy, where one gets invited to embark on a personal journey of discovery in the strange and familiar wilds of the soul. The present expert accompanies and sometimes guides one, but no one else is walking the path for one.

A Gestalt therapist would describe this "journey to the self" as a journey of awareness: it's not the journey's goal to change yourself or to reach some far-away location, but instead to become aware of what you're already doing and fully experience what you are doing it for. You discover yourself by being yourself, which, paradoxically, is what can enable change. To quote Beisser (1970) on the Paradoxical Theory of Change:

Change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.

The characters of the Dark Coil, protagonists and antagonists alike - if such a binary distinction even makes sense in this context - are all known as "travellers", quite often explicitly called so in the text. It's one, maybe even the thread that runs through and connects all of the Coil. All of Fehervari's writing is about the journey of these travellers, their discoveries along the way, the burning passions and dreadful fears that spur them on and the revelations and damnations they arrive at.

And while there are indeed external horrors and secrets aplenty to discover in the Dark Coil, the most meaningful and haunting revelations and damnations flow out of the characters themselves. Importantly, with the way that the Warp changes, intertwines and reverts the planes of existence in this fictional universe, the distinction between inside and outside, external and internal becomes questionable at least, blurry at best and inverted at worst. Here, a change in awareness of the Self does indeed change the face of the World. As within, so without.

Peter: The way I come at the whole mythology goes like this: In reality, in our world, I believe that the physical world is the firmament and the physical world gives rise to processes which give rise to your brain, and something very mysterious in the brain process gives rise to consciousness. The point is that it begins from the physical and rises up to the mind. But in the Warhammer world, the fundamental point to me is that the mind is the firmament. That thoughts and beliefs and emotions are the firmament of reality and that the physical world is produced from that. It’s an inversion of our reality. A consequence of that, and this is what comes through over and over in the Coil, is that this can be extremely destructive, because emotions are fundamentally prone to disorder, especially when there's trauma and stress and challenge involved.

I have it in my mind that within the Warhammer world there's a sort of consensus, which is built up over billions of years, of what reality is, and that this is the physical universe. But it's got cracks everywhere. So the more people strain, the more people have ambition to become more powerful or more knowledgeable or more in control of the universe, the more the illusion of consistency and the illusion of something rock solid begins to break down.

And so the sites where I set the Coil stories, these are all places where the facade is riddled with cracks, where this kind of pretend world that the characters live in is already very weakened. The consequence of that is that your mind can shape the world much, much more fluidly, much more readily than it would in a more established place, a more solid place. And so all of the Coil stories happen in places that I call the Fractures, where you begin to see.

I’m using the crystal web that appears in Reverie and Requiem Infernal as a kind of metaphor for these substrata of reality, all of which are interlinked. And I wanted it to feel almost like a kind of neural network, with the physical bonds manifested in what looks like crystal, and then the whole notion of the indigo fire inbetween it being like firing. So the whole thing is meant to be a kind of a metaphor, but you are living in a universe where metaphor can be real.

So it's a fundamentally different rule from our world. Things in our world that I believe would be very wise to pursuit, like trying to understand things and trying to in a way control nature, pursuit science and progress, trying to improve the physical world and improve our grip on reality...all of those things are very constructive here, but within the Warhammer universe, there's an added element of danger. That by questioning, the more you question, the more it begins to look back and the more it begins to weaken around you.

There's a point in Requiem Infernal where I get quite overt in that: that the more you look at it, it looks back and won't stop looking. It will come after you. And I wanted to try and get in the idea that it could come after you as a reader as well. I really wanted to get this notion that the more you start questioning reality, that potentially the more frayed it gets. In the real world, it's your sanity that begins to fray, but within the Dark Coil world, the world begins to fray as well, because it's all based on your sanity and not stability.

This unique metaphysical setup of the Warhammer universe and the focus of Peter's writing on it's ramifications means that subjectivity rules not just the psyche of the characters, but the world of the Coil itself. This importance and, indeed, power of subjectivity is, to me, another resonance between the Dark Coil and the process and setting of therapy.

The planets of the Coil really speak to this, as they are mirrors to both the psyche and the conflicts within and between the travellers visiting them; they are crystallised avatars of emotional states and at the same time active perpetrators of psychological processes visited upon and happening within the persons roaming their surface.

There's Phaedra, the world of dissolution which erases structures of safety and stability to leave a morass of confusion, pain and suffering, but sometimes growth, too. There's Sarastus, where a literal dome had to be erected to keep the deepest darkness from tearing down a facade of normality, but which continues to get cracks through which the shadows seep into the light of sight. There's Vytarn, which has buried whole ages of history and is a beacon of spirituality, littered with monuments to both virtues and vices. And there's beautiful Malpertuis, the painted world of wonder and art which hides a wound festering with obsession, cruelty and self-hatred.

The worlds of the Coil remind me of a quote by Neil Gaiman that I really like:

I've never known anyone who was what he or she seemed; or at least, was only what he or she seemed. People carry worlds within them.

As a therapist, you sometimes have to act as an arbiter of reality, but more often your first and foremost task is to be an explorer of these inner worlds. Or maybe, better said, a co-explorer, a guide, an accomplice, a guest to someone exploring their own inner world. These are worlds that are not ruled by laws of physics, but by belief, faith, emotion, ruled by laws about themselves and a perspective on reality that the persons carrying these worlds have made up for themselves or have been told so many times over that they hold them as paramount and undeniable as gravity. Parts of these worlds are readily available or even intruding on the worlds of others, other parts are shrouded from sight, occluded by mirrors or cut off altogether. There are blossoming places of growth and life and desolate wastelands ravaged by catastrophe.

And, like the only superficially stable worlds of the Dark Coil, these inner worlds aren't fixed, either, but are engaged in a constant process of creation, destruction and transformation. There are worlds of hard granite and sharp angles, immovable objects hammered in place to hide from sight their molten cores. There are fluid worlds that seem to be unable to assume a form of their own, changing shape according to the objects they pass by, denying themselves the protection and vulnerability of a tangible surface. There are inner worlds that are presented as the core of their system, but whose trajectories tell of the vast objects hidden from sight that hold them in their gravitational pull. There are suns that only lighten and warm and burn upon themselves.

Psychological thought allows for a vast bandwidth of possible angles to study and approach these worlds that people carry within them. Exploring the exact nature of their laws of gravity and relativity, unearthing the forces that shaped them into their current form, inquire upon the way that they relate to the inevitably approaching destruction of their cerebral stars…all viable and potentially fruitful endeavors for an astronaut of the self. Such a “psychonaut” coming with a Gestalt-ist attitude would focus primarily on the processes of creation and creativity that the inner worlds are continually engaged in at the very moment that they are allowed to visit them. How do the worlds protect themselves from meteorite showers? How and why do they manage to keep their surface cold and hard or hot and fluid? Which energies do they readily transmit, which are kept bundled in tight places, which are only present by their curious absence? And how do the inner worlds of the client react to those of the therapist? Do they turn their surfaces intransparent and impregnable? Do they seek to flow and merge with the strange celestial bodies approaching them? Do they flee the encounter, or do they come crashing into it?

These activities at the point of contact between one person and the other, between what defines itself as an “I” and what it defines as “Not I”, is the point of primary concern of Gestalt therapy.

From Laura Perls’ Living at the Boundary:

Contact is the recognition of, and the coping with the other, the different, the new, the strange.

It is not a state that we are in or out of (which would correspond more to the states of confluence or isolation), but an activity: I make contact on the boundary between me and the other. The boundary is where we touch and at the same time experience separateness. It is where the excitement is, the interest, concern, and curiosity or fear and hostility, where previously unaware or diffused experience comes into focus, into the foreground as a clear gestalt. The freely ongoing gestalt formation is identical with the process of growth, the creative development of self and relationship.

If this continuum is interrupted by outside interference or blocked by the fixed gestalten of rigid character formation or of obsessional thoughts and activities, no strong new gestalt can emerge. The boundary experience becomes blurred and even wiped out by the fixed and incomplete gestalten. Excitement changes into anxiety and dread or indifference and boredom. The faculties of differentiation and discrimination are disowned and projected: attitudes, ideas, and principles of other people are misappropriated and introjected: energy that might be available for direct and creative action is deflected into dummy activities or retroflected in self-interference, self-reproachs, self-pity, and self-destruction.

When reading over the Dark Coil, what struck me was that all of the worlds of the Coil, be it the pathogenic Phaedra, the symbol-laden Candleworld of Vytarn or the Painted World of Malpertuis, are what I call “places of the in-between”. They are places that exist on the borders of fixed systems, places that feel somewhat malleable, places that allow for the meeting of characters and forces full of conflict and potential. They are all places that blur the lines between warring empires and conflicting ideologies, between faith and reason, between dreams and reality.

They are physical representations of the boundary that Laura Perls describes, places where people and systems and concepts are allowed to “touch and at the same time experience separateness” with “the other, the different, the new, the strange”. They are places uniquely suited to enable change:

Peter: I would say that one of the big themes of the Dark Coil is Change. This sense of self awareness of moving to another phase.

The whole notion that really makes drama work - that makes character drama work - is that there should be some sort of character progression, some sort of realization, some sort of movement. And from the very outset, I wanted this sense that, wherever I set a story, the character should be going on a journey. They should be proceeding through. And then it struck me very early on that that becomes much more interesting and also achievable in a visceral way if the location itself has character, has presence, feels borderline sentient. There’s an argument that there is a sort of sentience to what's going on in Sarastus [the planet from stories like Nightfall and Nightbleed].

On Phaedra on the other hand it's just a kind of visceral overall sense of hostility, but not overt hostility. With Phaedra I wanted to create a sense of an environment that doesn't necessarily kill you instantly. I didn't want to go down with a sort of traditional death world. Well, there are things that will kill you, but it's not as full on. It's a sense of a place in decay, where everything is harder, everything is more painful and what kind of an effect that would have on people.

And so with 'Fire Caste' it was very much a conscious decision to put in a clean cut race, like the T’au, and challenge them with something that's murky, both physically but also spiritually and ideological, that makes a mess of things. And while that was a very conscious decision, I didn't know it when I started writing the book. To remove the Ethereals, to remove the thing that gives them this spiritual foundation, to take that out of the picture and see what happens and see how they change and see what kind of psychological effect, for example, having to work more closely with primitive humans or having to engage more in meele combat, would have on them.

And likewise with the Arkhan [the human regiment from whose perspective much of 'Fire Caste' is told from]. I wanted to figure out who would be a really inappropriate group of soldiers to send to a swamp world. A group that would just not fit in there because their fighting style is inappropriate, their equipment is inappropriate. That's why I went for these quite old world Confederates using massive armor for support, which is what usually gave them their edge, but which on Phaedra would very often just sink and malfunction. And again, the kind of effect that would have on them.

Another thing that was important for me was that I wanted the Arkhan to be fundamentally quite rational. I didn’t want them to be a group of religious fanatics, at least for the most part. I wanted them to be people who came from an almost semi-enlightened part of humanity, because then the impact of the change of this place that's so ugly would be much more challenging for them, as well as the big lie of the Imperium and the big lie of the conspiracy. So it was very much a 'Heart of Darkness' story in that it’s a journey of people going into despair and going insane in various ways. But it was very much about change.

'Requiem Infernal' is much more overt in that regard. In a sense, consciously, I knew what I wanted to achieve with that book. I wanted it to be an exploration of Chaos, the facets of Chaos and what they mean to me as emotions, as ideas. Because I'm really disinterested in the idea of gods and demons that speak and plot in a villainous manner. They don't interest me. They don't scare me. There's something about it that alienates me, but I thought the actual concepts behind the powers of Chaos actually have meaning.

I find that the idea of Decay, of Nurgle-ness, becomes much more interesting if you look at it as the psychological state of trying to endure, no matter what the odds are, to try to keep going. You refuse to give up. What happens if that becomes corrosive? What happens if you reach the point where you no longer can die and you become diseased and infected, but you keep going? So that was one of the things that I knew from the onset I wanted to explore: Nurgle, in a way that I found frightening rather than just the obvious. I mean, obviously the load of zombies and things do appear in it later on and that stuff is quite fun, but the root of it is, I think, more insidious.

And when the Incarnates appear - who I suppose are my equivalent to Greater Demons - and they do talk, I really wanted them to be enigmatic and strange rather than out and out evil. I wanted them to be, again, very alien presences, but also things that are almost like aspects of the human psyche taken to a very inhuman level, but that the root is still there.

And so this theme of change runs through the whole Dark Coil. Reverie is a massive exploration of that. Interestingly, in Reverie hardly any of the named characters from the main cast dies. It's not really a book about people having fights and getting killed, but everyone is changed by it. Everyone goes through a process of change and it was one story that I would say was most overtly an attempt to do something that felt – and it sounds like this is pompous - but I wanted it to feel more like a spiritual book, the whole idea of going on this journey.

One of the things that strikes me about what Peter is talking about here is that he seems to be quite intent on transforming or tracing back the fantastical concepts of the Warhammer universe to their psychological roots.

When he talks about exploring gods and demons as ideas and emotions rather than distinct, fixed characters that “speak and plot in a villainous manner”, it sounds almost like what Beisser writes about one of the changes that Gestalt therapy made when being developed against the background of Freudian structuralism:

Kardiner has observed that in developing his structural theory of defense mechanisms, Freud changed processes into structures (for example, denying into denial). The Gestalt therapist views change as a possibility when the reverse occurs, that is, when structures are transformed into processes. When this occurs, one is open to participant interchange with his environment.

The transformation from anthropomorphic gods back into ideas and emotions has, I feel, a similar effect as the transformation from psychological structures back into processes: It re-integrates the former into the ever-shifting living landscape of the human psyche and hands responsibility and agency back to the individual.

In therapy, if one trains to experience one's own psychological structures as individual processes again, it allows one a much richer experience of one’s own being - if I truly accept and experience what I am feeling and doing in a current moment, those feelings and actions become much more vibrant and alive to me. Importantly, this attitude gives clients much more agency over themselves - if I truly feel like I own my feelings and actions, I also have more leverage to make choices about them and thus, as Beisser said, “change becomes a possibility.”

In Fehervari’s fiction, the liquefaction of gods and demons into emotions, concepts and processes also hands responsibility back to the characters, which lends their actions, feelings and even dreams more potency and meaning. To me, this has the effect of increasing the weight of the drama that unfolds from them as well as making the horror and wonder of the Coil more compelling and tangible. If the gods are us, they can be understood, and if we are the gods, we should be feared as such.

Of course, this being the Warhammer universe, the deck is still always stacked against the characters and the feedback loop of the metaphysical stratas of reality is most often a toxic maelstrom of tragic inevitability rather than an enabler of liberation and creativity. Still, as I read these stories, they still form a compelling metaphor for the power of subjectivity and the part of the human experience in which the laws and demons of our inner worlds seem to reign supreme over those of the outside world.

The twisted, curling, obscure narrative web of the Dark Coil feels indeed like a theatre of the mind, a labyrinth of the heart.

It is not the truth of the answer that bears significance, but the sincerity of the seeker. - The Torn Prophet

As above, so below. As within, so without.

The spiral turns: Continue here with the fourth part.

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