Things Fall Apart

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

— William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

If you have ever lost anything of great substance, ever experienced the dissolution of an important relationship or the death of a beloved, you’ve known what it is to sink to your lowest point. Every day is a day of lead. You might as well be walking around wearing ski boots and a motorcycle helmet on your head, the heaviness is so palpable. This leadenness can continue for a long time, sometimes years. Through it, one is reduced.

The person you were before a great loss is lost, too. It doesn’t matter whether the loss is the death of a loved one or the death of a dream, the loss of one’s home or the loss of one’s community: it is all loss. We can’t get it back, although sometimes people try. In fact, one of the greatest dangers to the recently bereaved is that they literalize their longing to be with the lost loved one and become suicide victims. Severing of former ties endangers current ones, too. For example, parents whose child has died, or whose baby is born handicapped, or who experience one too many disasters may end up projecting their devastating inner dissolution (and disillusionment) onto the marriage, and end up divorced. A friendship or family relationship may come apart, an outward manifestation of an inner waste.

Certainly, what is not needed for the new way of life demanded by losing a large part of it will and must be sundered. Not all endings are bad endings that come as a result of an ending. In City of God, Saint Augustine wrote that bereavement and calamity are fuels for the fire that burns away all that is not essential. Temporal things and temporary beings and our insistence on life being about me, myself, and I all the time cannot support consciousness, for we are not the center of the universe until we see ourselves reflected in another person’s eye.

This tiny reflection of ourselves in another person’s pupil is called the kore in Greek, the pupilla in Latin. Kore is also Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and the harvest goddess Demeter, the maiden who became queen of the underworld after being abducted by Hades, the god-king of the underworld. Because vegetation springs forth from what rots and decays in the ground, Persephone is also associated with vegetation, the spring, and the harvest. So it is that one is calcinated, roasted, and reduced by abductions and calamities, losses and griefs both large and small, until we finally arrive at the quite reduced state that makes us exclaim, “I’ve been undone!” or “I’m falling apart!” or “Things are coming apart at the seams!” To say these things and know they’re true is to know dissolution, which is the second stage of the alchemical process and one step along the path of transformation.


The alchemist achieved dissolution through corrosion or cibation, which involved water, making water the solvent of this phase. The story of a Great Flood, which is represented in every ancient culture in the world, is also symbolic of this alchemical phase—a timely topic as millions of Americans struggle against the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy. Water corrodes the strongest iron, and anyone who has lived long enough has had his or her mettle (metal) tested and experienced this. If one hasn’t had his mettle tested before then, old age itself is corrosive, for there is nothing like coming to the end of one’s work, one’s parenting career, one’s marriage, and one’s life to corrode one’s entire sense of self.

To achieve dissolution of a substance, the alchemist used a bain-marie (bath of Mary), a little double-boiler. In fact, the double-boiler was developed specifically for alchemy, so that today whenever anyone uses one, he or she is a sort of alchemist, too.

Psychological dissolution breaks down the temporary or artificial structures of the psyche by baptizing it in the unconscious, which is non-rational, receptive, and feminine by nature. One aspect of dissolution is that a person can be flooded with the unconscious, which can be wonderful and even ecstatic as one experiences the bliss of “going with the flow.” Another aspect of dissolution, however, is that without ego defenses or a controlling persona, a person may be plunged into fantasy. Many who grieve go through a phase of retreating to a dark room to watch old movies or lie in bed and read novels, or simply sleep, all of which signal a phase of dissolution.

Longing for Mother

Another result of ego dissolution is to identify with the collective psyche through groups, religious organizations, etc. Well-meaning observers of our grief and bewilderment often advise us to get out of the house and volunteer, to meet new people. Premature involvement in volunteerism and identification with groups will later prove to be costly, though, for the one who is at this early phase of dissolution has no business ministering to others. New relationships, especially those that invite us to merge with others, are also suspect. Such absorptions, Jung said, amount to a longing for the mother.

And don’t we all long for Mother at times like these? The darkened room, the swirling Merlot so deeply red in the glass, the bathrobe we gather ourselves into—all are loving arms, protective wombs. It is good to go down, to let everything that must dissolve and rot do it. If we do not allow ourselves to be dissolved, we’ll deny the world her spiritual compost. When it’s time, something young and green will press up from what decayed and dissolved during autumn’s decay and winter’s inertia. Stay, wait for the time; otherwise, we’ll be walking dead, stinking up the world we think we’re serving, preying on the lives around us with our death.

We must wait and suffer, suffer and wait. Like Christ, we must hang suspended between heavenly hopes and earthly helps. Having been plunged into this suffering, we must lie there in the gentle, constant bath of Mary’s tears until we come apart.

Further Reading

Dissolution, by Naphtalia Leba

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