At the Movies: “Cold Souls”

Perhaps one of the more clever ways of defining “soul” is to imagine what a human might look like without one.  Years ago, while working for a state university, I had a co-worker who was reflecting on the caustic, and at times, heartless decision-making of a major state university administrator.

“Do you think it is possible,” my friend pondered, “for a person not to have a soul?”

Given the way this rather heartless administrator treated those around him, it seemed possible to my friend.  My companion grew up in an Irish Catholic background, had a Jesuit for an uncle, and received in his childhood more than his share of conversations about right and wrong, and the ultimate rewards or punishments awaiting the righteous and unrighteous.

Could we exist without a soul?  This is exactly the premise of a quirky film, Cold Souls, a comedy-drama starring the exceptional Yale-educated actor, Paul Giamatti.  The actor plays himself … sort of … rehearsing for a theater production of Uncle Vanya, a famous play by Antonin Chekhov.  The play, if you are familiar with it, is awash in the seeming futility of life, the wrong choices we make in our youth that doom us to ennui for the rest of our lives, and the “no exit” unrequited love of our passions for those out of our reach.

Giamatti, feeling the burden on his soul of this heavy material, learns of a company in Manhattan that can temporarily remove your soul, with all of its conflicts and distracting negative feelings, and keep it in cold storage while you take a holiday from the weight of human existence.  His soul is removed, for the two-week run of the play, and placed in a clear canister, and although he is disappointed that it looks like a chickpea, he immediately feels the burden of life’s imperfection lifted.

Returning to the Uncle Vanya rehearsals, Giamatti makes a hilarious attempt to play a “soulless” love scene, and realizes that while his depression and angst is gone, so is everything else that gave him the passion of his acting craft and his life.   So, he borrows a Russian poet’s soul, does a fabulous job on Uncle Vanya, and then goes back to the company to get his soul back.  To his horror, he finds his soul is missing – smuggled to St. Petersburg, Russia, by a “mule,” a woman who had Giamatti’s soul placed inside her (so it could handle the cabin pressure of a jet’s high altitude), and sold on the black market to an untalented Russian soap opera actress in search of inspiration.  The rest of the movie is Giamatti working with the soul mule to get his soul back.  This is one of those kinds of movies that is so out of the mainstream it really leaves you thinking.

So, the rather profound question posed by Cold Souls is this: What would a human look like without a soul?

My Irish Catholic friend wondered if he had the answer to this question personified in the self-absorbed decision-making of a university administrator.

At the Movies

Conversations: What is Soul Improv?

Welcome to Soul Improv, a blog about one of the most popular concepts in the world, soul  This is becoming one of the most frequently used words in the English language, even though as a concept in popular usage it is about as clear as a Seattle morning fog.

The word soul has had quite an evolution through the centuries.  Borrowed from the ancients, embellished by a long history of Christian theology, explored by psychology and psychiatry, adopted by other religious traditions, and finally monetized by the consumer cultures of the world, the concept soul is now used so pervasively as to make it difficult to know exactly what it means.

Of course, improv, short for improvisation, is a much easier term to grasp.  A commonly used word in theater, comedy and music, improv is an art form for spontaneous creativity – walking a tight rope without a net.  In music, good improvisation requires the foundation of a melody, an understanding of music theory, particularly the chording and scales that fit the key of the melody, and a sense of adventure and courage to go hunting for new sounds in the song that flow out of some mysterious place in the core of the musician’s being.   A big part of learning to improvise is finding that place in the musician’s consciousness, and developing the habit of returning to it regularly and eventually on command.  To improvise is to develop a sense of comfort in this zone between the written melody and the potential to create or find something new.

The human interest in the soul, which has been a cornerstone concept in western cultures and most of the regions influenced by western culture, seems an unlikely word to slide up alongside improv.   But, this blog is all about putting together unlikely ideas and experiences in search of soul.

Many people still use soul in its original religious sense, as the animating principle of human consciousness, the divinely infused source of life.  It is a term closely associated with religion.  According to its more traditional use, God made us with a soul and this essence or center of our consciousness is what endures beyond death.  For centuries, the soul of one generation was considered pretty much the same as another.  There was also a dependable process and structure for tending to, strengthening or “building up” one’s soul.

Beliefs; sacred texts; rituals; the development of habits of heart and mind that lead to spiritual insight; solitude; prescribed forms or content in prayer or meditation; “holy conversation;” appropriating virtues like humility, forgiveness, courage, fortitude, perseverance; fostering community; accepting counsel from the wise and holy; sacred music and artifacts … These created a kind of garden for nurturing one’s soul.   Spend time in the garden and your soul could grow in focus and strength, preparing you for the best or the worst life had to offer.

These gardens for the soul grew into the great religions and philosophies in the world, and as these systems of human meaning grew lush with depth and sophistication debates developed on the most essential components or the best way to organize or introduce elements of the “soul maturing” religious system.  Graft and corruption fueled disillusionment and more debates.  At certain times and places, pomposity and ethical blindness squelched the very soul the systems purported to nourish.

In the meantime, particularly in the last 100 years in western culture, people started using soul in much different ways.  Building on the massive cultural and social changes beginning more than three and a half centuries earlier, increasing numbers of people started believing that the soul could flourish apart from religious structures and the guidance by religious leaders.  People started recognizing traces of soul outside the gardens, and once this happened religions no longer were perceived to hold the keys to the gardens of the soul, or religious authorities the secrets of the soul’s development or maturity.

Now “soul” is virtually everywhere.  Or, so we are led to believe.  Soul can refer to emotion (he gave a soulful performance); to courageous action (she was a strong soul at a difficult time); to a good meal (soul food); or a type of entertainment (soul music), and to a whole lot more.  There is now a Soul car (made by KIA) that uses dancing hampsters as the sales force.

Soul Eater, a Japanese manga about teams trying to kill evil souls, entertains a generation of eager viewers.  See:

If you Google the word, soul, you surface 1,090,000,000 sites, while Amazon.com lists more than 775,000 products making use of the term in some way.  It appears we are attracted to the concept of soul, even as it is becoming increasingly difficult to decide if it still means anything specific.

I think it does.  But, many people are in a period of massive soul improvisation, trying to figure out how to work with the presence of soul in the world and in their own consciousness.  This has resulted in the dismissal of many of the religious assumptions that kept soul in a narrower field of view for centuries.

You can see this soul improv in the thinking of many who serve as high priests of American culture.  To name just a few: The rock guitarist Carlos Santana talks about his playing as a form of spirituality, the province once believed to belong to religion, while Jimi Hendrix went on record wanting to create an “electric church,” a place to experience the religious roots of blues, which came out of the black church.  Both men seemed to know, or at least intuit, that soul was moving out beyond its familiar boundaries and they fancied themselves psycho-nauts – explorers of the soul.  Their fans agreed.  When The Beatles released the album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album jacket, for the first time in music history, had all the lyrics transcribed.   Their followers could read those lyrics like sacred texts, which they did.  Since that breakout album, reading with such Talmudic intensity has happened with the works of many other bands, as well as popular books, like the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling.

But, precisely because soul is used so loosely in many of these popular forms, and has become such a common marketing term, the seeker of soul in life is easily led down rabbit holes.  This business of soul has been in operation since humans had their first thought and a lot has been learned about how this capacity operates.  Not all expressions in contemporary society pass muster.

So, why a blog?  The acceleration of change and the proliferation of the use of the concept of soul are making it increasingly difficult for us to discern the meaning of the concept.  Even while religious organizations appear to lose their relevance for large numbers of people, many of the contemporary promises to enhance soul ring dramatically (perhaps dangerously) hollow in light of the long history of the human quest for meaning through spiritual authenticity and truth.

Soul Improv will wade into this territory of the uses (and abuses) of the concept of soul.  The blog will explore “soul sightings” in culture, and will attempt to surface the apparent or implied definitions, expressions and manifestations behind those uses of the term, analyzing them against the tried and true wisdom of ancient approaches to the domain of this life of the spirit.

Soul Improv will watch life’s parade as the people, movements, and expressions purporting to represent soul get off the melody lines of this ancient force of human consciousness to create something new, true and beautiful, or a mere hologram of what makes us most human.

I hope you’ll tune your instrument and pipe in with your own thoughts about where soul is and isn’t showing itself in our rapidly changing world.

Conversations