Sophocles’ “Edge”, Hamlet’s “Undiscovered Country” and Rilke’s “Ecstasy”

Ian Baker
Zurich, Switzerland
Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Analytische Psychologie

The theme of this Congress evokes Jung’s sense of the psyche as an ever emerging process, arising from individual and collective history and impelled by a personal and cultural telos. It reminds as that as analysts, we work toward a creation of further consciousness not for our own sake, but as it enhances the capacity for engaged experience.

In the elaboration of this suggestion, the Congress committee touched upon the dynamics which arise at the edges between analyst and analysand.

It struck me that this edge was touched upon some 2,500 years ago in Sophocles, some 400 years ago in Shakespeare and some 200 years ago in Rilke’s Elegies.

In the first part of Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy, commonly known as Oedipus Rex, there are two vivid climaxes. The most obvious is the scene in which Oedipus leaves the palace after finding his dead mother/wife, Jocasta, and palpably reveals to the audience that he has blinded himself.

The second occurs early and is in fact the precursor of the later scene. It happens when Oedipus goes in headlong pursuit of the man who has brought about the plague in Thebes, not knowing that that man is himself.

Slowly the story, known to the audience, is unfolded onstage. Jocasta has had the feet of her son bound in iron and has him placed on a mountain side, there to die of exposure. (As an aside, the argument was that the responsibility for the child’s death would be lessened if that actual moment of death was not known; this was to be repeated in the final part of the trilogy, where Antigone is walled up in a cave to face a lonely death, the time of which would be known only to her.)

She is afraid that the prophecy that the son will kill the father and marry the mother may be lived out. But Oedipus is found and the man who finds him gives him to a shepherd for upbringing. First the man who found Oedipus is tracked down and then, to whom the first man had given the manacled child, the shepherd himself is brought in to face Oedipus.

There then occurs the dialogue between Oedipus and the shepherd in which it is clear to the audience but not Oedipus that this is entering upon dangerous ground.

The interaction is as follows: Oedipus makes clear to the shepherd that he wants the truth of what happened to the exposed child on the mountain. The shepherd evades giving a clear reply until Oedipus, in fury and convinced that the shepherd for some reason is lying, tells him that he will get the truth even if he has to resort to torture. The shepherd pleads with Oedipus to let him go saying that he is an old man now. But Oedipus pursues him until finally the shepherd warns him: “Oedipus, I am near the edge”.

And finally, without losing control, the shepherd submits to the inevitability of truth. Oedipus, faced with the enormity of this revealed truth, plunges headlong into the final throes of the first part of the tragedy.

Jocasta, who has heard the dialogue, begs Oedipus to leave things as they are. “After all, all men dream of sleeping with their mothers”. But finally the enormity of what has happened dawns upon her; she retires into the palace and hangs herself.

What then for the shepherd was “the edge”? It was the brink of truth. To stay on the edge would have saved Oedipus. And yet the shepherd knows the truth must be said. The shepherd takes responsibility for his own dilemma by acknowledging that this edge is his own. And yet he knows there is no choice. He cannot dangle on the edge and remain true to himself.

The shepherd must transcend the edge to gain a hard-won freedom from the unbearable and tragic secret of another person. The deeper tragedy is that Oedipus cannot do anything about it

It is the mention if the word “edge” which is a kingpin for this conference which calls for our attention.

There is always a tension in the audience when this passage is played correctly. If rightly done, we are thrust into awareness that the edge is the function and the place and, at the same time, the capacity to experience the perilous in-between which exists between finite and infinite.

Oedipus interprets the shepherd’s words as an indication that the man is evading giving up the truth.

But the audience knows that it is infinitely more than that.

For the edge is between revealed truth and veiled truth.

The truth will be the end of Oedipus, since he will then know that he himself is the man he is seeking. But can the shepherd be forced into making this revelation. It is not cowardice on the shepherd’s part – it is the moral dilemma of betraying the love he had for the child he reared and the awareness that in this case truth will be fatal. We would call this the tension of the opposites where that tension must be maintained in order for Tertium or the third possibility to arise. We, as analysts, know full well what this implies the often painful suspense between knowledge and not-knowing; the waiting for the intervention of the Self; the openness to allow the Grace which is often behind the Tertium to reveal itself.

But in view of the enormity of this tragedy, our Jungian approach may only be seen as a possible approximation to the profound implication of Oedipus’ fate and hubris.

Edge and Ecstasy

To understand “the edge” more fully, we need to turn to the poets.

For many poets, the edge approximates ecstasy. This could be described as a state of exaltation in which one transcends oneself, but it can be at the same time also a form or kind of dislocation.

The ecstatic is not merely the heightened intensity commonly associated with intense feelings, but a transcendence of self: a glorification celebrating the source of insight and revelation that is not sensed as much as, like a full well of water, it simply overflows.

Though Rainer Maria Rilke begins his Duino Elegies with a plea to the angels, the ecstatic in these poems serves to reveal the “terrifying” invisible world that we know only at the edges. Ecstasy in Rilke’s Elegies moves us from the visible world into the invisible world: from finite presence to infinite presence. The ecstatic is something that is approached, not obtained, and the Elegies approach the simultaneous effect of transcendence and dislocation.

Rilke himself, in a letter to his Polish translator, describes it like this: “Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being … It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, ‘invisibly, ’ inside us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.” The Elegies show us the work of the continual conversion of the beloved visible and tangible world into the “invisible vibrations and agitation of our own nature”. (Briefe Band 2. von Rainer Maria Rilke, Insel Verlag, Frankfurt, 1950)

Rilke, in anticipation of Jung, sees this conversion as the rejuvenation of the collective unconscious. The conversion has a heart beat and a rhythmic flow which reaches out to touch the world.

The Elegies achieve their most ecstatic moments when Rilke permits them to rise into a language all of their own:

Fling the emptiness out of your arms
into the spaces we breathe; perhaps the birds
will feel the expanded air with more
passionate flying. (First Elegy 23-25)

The “emptiness” mentioned here is at once both the “invisible vibrations and agitation of our own nature” and the visible image of nothingness that birds may now use for their flying.

Rilke seems to see “the edge” as an “interval of being”. Our existence, as implied in this passage, is only a piece of that existence: indeed, an “interval of being”. Rilke suggest that this “interval” is finite; existence begins with oneness with the earth, making the transience an internal, infinite experience. It is the “transience” that “plugs into the depths of being”. (Briefe und Dokumente von Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. Stefan Zweig, Insel Verlag, Frankfurt)

But to understand what the edge means we need to listen to the poet within us. Because poets know of the essential difficulty of language. Of how, once an innuendo is unravelled, the outlines of meaning beneath that innuendo begin to reveal themselves. Poets know that surface meaning disguises the subtlety of truth, missing its resonance.

But they also know that time in poetry is often poised and suspended within a history of articulate speech.

The more we work with the psyche and the soul, the more we seem to realise that there is a place between ego and dream ego – between the waking and the dreaming being – and this is in fact safe if we approach it correctly.

In Celtic tradition, it is sometimes called kelpie country (Kelp is seaweed) – that area between land and water where the seaweed flourishes, the mermaids swim undisturbed, and life is both what it appears to be and what it is not. It is the world of half-thought – a fluctuating edge – a Celtic twilight hovering between the dark and the light.

We are taught and admonished to fear this place. But it is often when this area is reached that the psyche truly comes to life, bursting with spirit and energy. We are taught to fear it because it can appear psychotic – but it is more accurately that psychoid part of psyche which allows access to the purely archetypal; and though it might alarm, it is sage if approached correctly.

Perhaps we should ask what we mean by approaching this area correctly. Perhaps “approach” is the wrong verb – for we should in fact merely allow ourselves to enter this space and place without conscious effort. It is more than the world of daydreams and hypnogogic vision. It is the state which we knew well as small children when time stood still and reality was only barely in focus.

Where sound contains silence and silence is sound.

It would be wrong to say that this place between conscious and unconscious is half-conscious. It is closer to the preconscious perhaps – preconscious being that state which was reached as consciousness first emerged from the unconscious but was not fully absorbed by ego. When we lived in a present which was very close to the past and which touched upon the future.

We cannot take someone to this place nor can we even accompany someone along this road; we can only participate in their experience and sense the impact of it. But what we can do is follow its consequence and its impact through the symbolic imagery which such an experience constellates.

We know the world through our incarnation. We become then conscious of the world and take it back inside ourselves. Seen thus, the edge serves as a function per se; it is a peace-giving place and also a capacity and opportunity to experience the in between as both finite and infinite.


The edge for Hamlet is what he calls, in the “To be or not to be speech”, “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns”. A bourn is an old word which means limit or boundary – such as you might have between countries and where there is an area of no man’s land. It also suggest a place where there is an edge where one is left dangling before an abyss.

We must here touch upon the role of neurosis in life.

Neurosis implies that something is wrong in the psychic economy. But that is the long view – the short view would say that, bearing in mind Jung’s view that neurosis contains its own cure and that the core of neurosis is its very meaning. then we will have to take broader and more understanding approach to the uses of ambivalence and the purpose of procrastination.

We could look at it this way: neurosis protects the individual until the time is ripe for action. The suffering through of the neurotic symptom may be painful but it may also be the only way for the deeper meaning to manifest itself. Its core is a defence against the edge.

At the same time, neurosis delays action; it asks for a subtle working of the conscious mind within a lapse of time. But this means that the neurotic suffers the pain of waiting and its attendant unnerving. That waiting manifests itself as a defence barrier against the intolerable edge.

The odd thing is that within this waiting we seem to need not action, but inaction: not purposefulness, but ambivalence.

We may in our work be unwisely tempted to eradicate neurosis since it clearly debilitates living and defies progress.

But this is surely too simplistic and looks only at the symptom and not at the part the symptom may well be playing in an as yet unseen process.

For Hamlet, ambivalence and inaction was not only the outcome of his immediate life situation – it was also the wisest line of action. It was not an easy way out of a dilemma or an evasion of a dichotomy, but was a painful line of attack against impossible odds.

The Tertium is not something which falls into our laps. It demands a a degree of suffering. It needs time for consciousness to intervene and for us to realise that our apparently senseless behaviour is not only nonsense but has a profound meaning which may require the sufferer to live against the mainstream of life and ride close to the edge.

Some have claimed that Hamlet has a talent for staying in the middle of any life situation so that no decision could ever be made. But this must be claimed as a mockery of not only Shakespeare’s genius but also of Jung’s theory of the polarities where the individual must bide with the tension created by those polarities, awaiting the Tertium which hopefully is the outcome of that tension.

Where we must fault Hamlet is in the fact that he had no sense of his own space or boundaries or a feeling that the space and boundaries of others had meaning or importance. Boundaries were things which people put up to isolate him. The result was that he lived with no one truly getting close to him; a curious isolation which he enjoyed and despised.

And yet with Hamlet both the edge and indecisive ambivalence had many faces. His manifold dilemma does not diminish the fact that the crux is his indecision over whether or not to kill his uncle. But we must: ask why the dilemma? Is it a moral question? Is it an avoidance of what lies behind – the incest problem with his mother. Is it an ethical question.

Each of us seems to have his or her own answer – for Hamlet is the perfect projection carrier.

To understand the profundity of the dilemma we would need to look at the text of the so-called dilemma speech.

To be or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
or take the arms against a sea of troubles,
and by opposing, end them? To die: to sleep
no more; and by a sleep to say we end
the heartache and the thousand natural shocks
that flesh is heir to. ’Tis a consummation
devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
to sleep; perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub;
for in that sleep of death what dreams may come
when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
must give us pause. There’s the respect
that makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
the pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
the insolence of office, and the spurns
that patient merit of the unworthy takes,
when he himself might his quietus make
with a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear
to grunt and sweat under a weary life,
but that the dream of something after death,
the undiscovered country from whose bourn
no traveller returns, puzzles the will,
and makes us rather bear those ills we have
than fly to others that we know not of.

Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all;
and thus the native hue of resolution
is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
and enterprises of great pith and moment
with this regard their currents turn awry,
and lose the name of action. (Act III, Scene 1)

We are taken up in the problem of existence or non-existence. We are asked if it is a sign of intellectual and spiritual superiority that we suffer the onslaught of misfortune and even entertain putting an end to it all. For dying is an eternal sleep which puts an end to human suffering and also an end to our inherited misfortune. In this sense is death then something to which we should fearlessly look forward to?

But here again we must pause because what if there is something beyond death. It seems there is a place beyond death from which we never return. This confuses us and make us choose to put up with what we have, rather than taking flight into what finally is the unknown.

So we are victims of our own conscience and of our own knowledge of ourselves and even our will to live is weakened by our questioning the validity of that knowledge.

That seems to be the gist of Hamlet’s argument.

And what it means is that he must hang on the edge of an abyss which is of his own making and also the result of the dynamics in which he finds himself.

Was the edge for Hamlet the fact that he did not acknowledge that symptoms may not go unresolved? Hamlet reinforces, by action and inaction, the core dilemma throughout the play. He remains oblivious of the fact that our metamorphosis will never happen unless we use some art and participation; by doing as Renaissance man did and allowing life to be transformed not by knowledge but by the wisdom which springs from imagination.

How close this all is to Rilke when he says in the Orpheus Sonnets:

Know the image!
only in the dual realm
do voices become
eternal and mild.

In the outline of the theme of this congress which was sent to us quite a while ago, there was to be found a touch of poetry. “It is the psyche which has the capacity to reflect and to encounter the outer Other and the inner otherness, the ability to tolerate opposites and the grace to grant value and meaning”.

This is a beautiful idea and it is in Sophocles, Shakespeare and Rilke that we find its essence.