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The Emperor's Crisis: A Meditation on Projection, Ego, and Transformation

Echo and Narcissus (John William Waterhouse, 1903)

Echo and Narcissus (John William Waterhouse, 1903)


Written by Heimlich


“… And after years in dark tunnels
he came to silence…

“There was nothing…”

So begins Emperor‘s 2001 swansong (at least as far as anyone knew at the time), Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire and Demise. I could spill ink across a thousand pages and more writing about Emperor’s lyrics without ever running out of inspiration! For now I will limit myself to focusing on “The Eruption,” the song from which the above quote is derived.

“The Eruption” documents the crisis of the ego, the shattering of illusions of grandeur. It is a reflection on the perils of projection, the mechanism by which we superimpose our subjective beliefs and associations upon the world and the beings that populate it.

Put simply, the more lost I am in my projections, the less I can respond sensitively and creatively to other people, other beings, to the whole stream of my unfolding experience. We are in danger if we begin down the all-too-easy path of accreting ever more projectional sediment in our psyches. For this leads first to disjunctions in our relationships and then to crisis, a confrontation with nothingness that “The Eruption” evokes.

“He realised that the cheering cries of worship
were but echoes of his harsh outspoken word;
reflecting back at him from cold and naked walls,
in hollow circles fled illusions of wisdom he had heard”

Here we see the cruel irony of projection painted in stark colors. The protagonist is a kind of black metal Narcissus, absorbed in and obsessed by his own reflection in the water. So close, his dream of perfection, yet when he reaches for the image, it shatters into motes of light and liquid.

What might these fleeing illusions of wisdom comprise? If projection is a hall of mirrors, it is certainly a compelling one. After all, often our projections are accurate, for the simple reason that all of our experience, every relationship we find ourselves in (be it with other people, with animals, places, objects, anything) is composed of projection.

When I find myself walking down the street, it is partly my projections, my psychological habituation to sensory and psychological stimuli, my relationship to my past experiences, that imparts this knowledge to me. In fact, my habit and expectation – both ubiquitous forms of projection – often enable me to deal with the world very efficiently.

Yet habit and expectation remain illusions of understanding; they are conjecture masquerading as self-evident truth. They may assist us in automating our responses to a complex world but they can also blind our peripheral vision, dull our lateral faculties, diffuse our sense of existential pathos. They can numb us in the banality of familiar repetition.

And we become lost. We think that because the experience of our daily life is familiar we therefore know its nature and meaning. Yet in fact the nature and meaning of our life becomes terribly obscure precisely by virtue of its immediacy. How can I maintain perspective on my decisions, thoughts, feelings, relationships, and actions if I am utterly used up by and absorbed into them?



This lostness could be a passive “giving up” or studied obliviousness; it could be a tendency to endlessly replicate conflict and crisis situations; it could, in short, be evident in the behavior of anyone who keeps doing the same dysfunctional thing and expecting different results.

This is an unsafe state; it renders us highly vulnerable to the unknown, to the horizon of mystery. Insofar as projection covers over the enigma of existence with the veneer of illgotten confidence, it seduces us into illusory confidence, a phantasm which can all too readily abandon us to despair when we discover the illusion is empty of substance.

And so our Imperial narcissist finds himself trapped in an age-old parable: the Emperor has no clothes. When the ego’s projections become so discordant with the world that a radical psychic break occurs, that ego is in turn reduced to a weak and trembling form, like the defeated Skeksis Chamberlain in The Dark Crystal.

“From nothing came all I ever knew.”

A humbling sentiment if ever there was one! It is not until we have lost something that we can truly appreciate its meaning. When the ego loses the chariot of its righteous self-centeredness, when its tunnel vision chauvinism is exposed, it becomes punctured and emptied of its blinding, bloating fog.

Then clarity sets in, the crystalline moment of truth. When illusions founded on projection have been the basis of the ego’s identity, nothingness can indeed be said to be the origin of all that the ego values. It has been guilty of unwitting nihilism, which surely is the only true kind of nihilism.

Yet the experience of nothingness also sensitizes the ego to life and the world, since it forces the ego to embrace the horizon of mystery and enter into a tutelary relationship with the universe in which it is embedded. The way of tentative steps and hazardous guesses opens into a downward path, a road that requires a psychopomp’s guidance into the hitherto devalued unconscious.

“And he beheld the ruins
of an empire torn apart.
Yet, no grief nor rage did bind him;
just silent and bewildered
by the emptiness,
he stumbled off his throne”

Yes, first the journey must be made through the wreckage of the ego and its projections. Only through this taking stock is any further movement possible. Only through a thorough survey of the destruction wrought by a life of uncritical (or at least insufficiently critical) faith in projection can any new way of being be discerned.

The silence described is also of an existential character; it is the silence of the world holding its breath, waiting for the decisions that will shape the individual’s destiny. This might seem rather anthropocentric; yet phenomenologically speaking, this is exactly the atmosphere of such moments.

The protagonist’s lack of grief and rage is highly indicative of the intensity of his state. Grief and rage are inherently bound up with the ego; they are important indicators of both trauma and vulnerability. They tend to be reactive protections, cushioning the ego against the blows of life’s inevitable wounds.

Therefore, when these emotions no longer rise to meet the confrontation with emptiness – this indicate the sincerity and breadth of the self-questioning which has commenced. He is literally in shock.

“Suddenly, the walls around him cracked wide open,
and an endless void appeared in flickering, grey light.
‘What force, but silence, has deprived me of my coil?’

‘No trail to guide me. No point of reference in sight.’

‘By nothing, resurrection will be pure.'”

Here we see an indication that the Imperial ego may not have truly let go. These words could go in one of two ways; the oath upon nothing could be carried in one of two directions.

It could mean an absolute embrace of the vastness of mystery; acceptance of the reality of nothing’s irruption, which has blown open the closed illusions of projection. This indicates a readiness for radical reconsideration on the ego’s part, and for the beginning of a possible reorganization of the entire self complex (including the ego, the unconscious, and so on).

Or it could mean that the ego yet clings to the image of itself as the only agent of its transformation. A risky attachment, since it could easily dip back into the very thinking that invoked the crisis in the first place. It was egoic isolation that forged so much of the illusory existence, the uncritical lostness in projection. More than just an isolated sense of identity is likely needed if the ego’s projections are to be charted, considered, and rewired.

The mention of silence needs additional underscoring. Without silence, there can be no sound. Without an opening, no thing can come into manifestation. Until the crowded stage of consciousness is cleared, there can be no opportunity for the new to unfold, for the next scene to be laid, for the healing story to be told, the healing song to be sung.

In short: without destruction, there is no creation. We fear our encounters with silence and nothingness, yet these encounters can bring us profound growth, regeneration, transformation. The challenge lies in whether we can learn to let go – ironically enough –  and to be more precise, whether we can learn to let go of what has always already been snatched away from us anyway. Which is to say, everything.

“And he beheld the ruins
of an empire torn apart.
Wiping dust off his shoulders,
just silent now,
in this emptiness,
leaving all behind…

“Step by step,
past all past,
slowly he approached the surface.
Nothing left
to sacrifice,
the mirrors mocked him on the way.”

The mocking mirrors, haunting us even once we begin to accept the call of nothingness out of our broken empire of illusion. They keep us honest.

As I say, projection is a necessary condition of our psychological constitution. Without it, no relationships, no empathy, no communication. It also helps us to organize our experience, so that we are not constantly overwhelmed by sensory overload. Yet even though it enables us to escape the finite bounds of individual identity, it also threatens to cover over, to obscure, the individual’s understanding of their experience.

Hence many of us have in the past or present replicated the same dysfunctional patterns over and over. Lost in the hall of mirrors, it becomes very difficult to see the world beyond, or to chart how our habits of being in that world, of relating to it, might contribute to our strife.

To put all of this another way. Sometimes I think that every one of us is unwittingly walking around with a mechanical belt. Attached to this belt is a mechanical arm. At the end of the arm is a glass pane. The glass is covered in reflective grease, so it has the effect of a distorted carnival mirror.

The mechanical arm is programmed so that whenever we turn our heads, it moves the glass/mirror so that it stays right in front of our face. In this scenario our perception is powerfully shaped by our projections; all we ever see is that distorted mirror, rapidly whisked before us no matter how we strive to find a better view…until eventually we stop striving and settle for the self-absorbing deception reflected back at us.

But crisis experiences, such as the one described in “The Eruption,” can disrupt the mechanical arm’s function. We get a brief glimpse of the true world, a brief experience of what real connectedness and relationship might be, precisely by confronting the absence of such things.

And we want more. At first we do not understand exactly what this self-inflicted mechanical arm swindle might be. We only know that in some form it exists, perhaps initially only as a vague and wispy intuition. With luck, willingness, and perseverance we eventually detect the mechanical arm. We may try to destroy it, but it is far too strong. We feel despair.

But then, accident might guide us to scrape just a little of the reflective grease from the glass window. This enables us to see just a tiny sliver of reality through the distorted reflection. Thus we begin to tend to the discipline of catching the arm out, so that we might scrape off a little grease here and a little grease there.

With the goal being that, eventually, most of the grease will be gone, and clear glass will permit us a much more transparent relationship to the world around us, a relationship largely unmuddied by expectation, habit, trauma, fear, shame, avoidance of vulnerability, and so forth.

Still a relationship grounded in projection, of course – we remain in the position of  looking through the glass window, and would even if we were to clean it completely and then manage to prevent new grease from sticking to it!

But with perspective, we can grasp our projections, recognize them for what they are, and release ourselves from obsessive dissolution into the world of our doing and striving. In a way, we are trying to explore and map out ourselves, precisely as a means of releasing ourselves from the tyranny of the self. A paradox, as psychological truths often seem to be.

Emperor are far too dark and fearsome a bunch to mention this, but critical to the entire process is compassion for self and others. Without it there can be no releasing into the terror and comfort of the nothing. Without it there can be no clearing the way for more wholesome development.

(Perhaps they do not mention this point because, as the pessimistic conclusion of the Prometheus album implies, they had not appreciated the importance of compassion at the time of that recording’s creation).

Ironically, compassion, that healing nectar, is what we often least dare to give ourselves as we stand in the ruins of our egoic folly. After all, compassion is due even for the ego, though it might constantly try to burst the bounds of its appropriate purpose. Compassion – which opens the way for the practice of the art of letting go.

Letting go is the easiest thing in the world and yet also the hardest. There is no trick, yet we are accustomed to living lives of psychological trickery. When we abandon tricks, the letting go happens through us. So long as we are asking to be told what the knack of letting go might be, we are not letting go. We have to let go of even the desire to let go if we want to let go.

What is it that erupts in “The Eruption?” The material of the unconscious, which speaks in parables of fire and water, smoke and stone. It can destroy us if we let it. But if we heed and accept it within a dance of letting go, it can transform us.

It is our conduit to mystery, which is the principle of all life. We are not condemned to the empty mirror-hall empire; even our losses are gifts of growth. The shame and disillusion of that final line, “the mirrors mocked him on the way;” are yet tempered by a grim satisfaction that something right is beginning to unfold after so much wrong.