by Michael Angerer
The need to identify the essential being of all things, the underlying truth hidden behind superficial appearances, seems to be an irresistible impulse; it is in any case certain that the concept of a soul, or a psyche, is among the oldest known to humanity, and among the most widespread. And yet, while the soul is almost universally seen as distinct from the body, there is at the same time a strange fascination with guessing at the nature of the soul based on external appearances: we attempt to scrutiny the invisible and intangible, to catch a glimpse of the unseen.
It is hardly surprising that the word ‘soul’ is among the oldest in the English language: it was already present in Old English as sawl, and has cognate forms in many other Germanic languages. Perhaps more interesting, however, is its possible ultimate origin: as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, it has been speculated (on, it must be said, the basis of very tenuous evidence) that the word ‘soul’ shares a root with ’sea’; the spirit might have been believed to come from, and return to, the water. This etymological theory reflects the split addressed earlier: the soul is both seen as transcending the body and conceptualised in fairly visual and material terms.
The reason for this ambivalent attitude to the incorporeal is probably the same as for any metaphor: we cannot conceive of something that we believe to lie beyond our conception, and so we find some tangible terms in which to conceive of it. Sometimes, this process can be quite simple: as a review of the meanings of ‘soul’ in the OED shows, the word not only designates ‘an essential principle or attribute of life’; it also simply came to mean ‘an individual person’ during the Early Middle Ages at the latest. This metonymical application of the word is perhaps the most direct way of dealing with the transcendent: the soul is equated with the body; the individual is simply its own essence.
But still we remain very aware of the fact that this usage is a simplistic reduction as far as human relations are concerned: you may be aware of a person, have seen them, talked to them, shared emotions with them, and yet never managed to perceive their inner self, the essence of their being, their soul. It is important to remember it is there: look people in the eye and accept that they, too, have hidden inner lives that you do not know – cannot know – but may, with a little empathy, attempt to reconstruct. Look at traces left by those who have gone before, and accept that behind every work of art, every little bit of text, lies another existence that you may attempt to reconstruct based on what you see and remember. All this is possible only because, in a way, humanity shares a soul: a common conception of what it is to be human; and, most importantly, because that is the essence of the soul itself: our vision of the soul is what we can imagine based on what little visual, material, and emotional clues we have.
This special photo issue contains a collection of pictures under the heading ’Oxford Souls’: consider them more visual signs to base your reconstructions on. These images may be familiar to you: you might have visited some of these places; and yet every one of them shows a unique angle, an individual perspective. Every photo is a sign that points to more than itself: enrich them with your imagination, your memories, your empathy, and hazard a guess at the souls behind them.