Spirits in the Material World

Having recently revisited James Hillman’s book, The Dream and the Underworld, I was excited to read Jeremy Kessler’s article in the New Atlantis on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work, “The Hall of Fantasy,” in which he proposes that those who would dwell too long in the imaginative world of fantasy are susceptible to the pursuit of a single-minded vision of progress in the real world.

The Hall of Fantasy then becomes the seed bed for political reformers and revolutionaries, often blinding them from all else into a single-minded pursuit of bettering the world. A timely message for our highly politicized culture where one can hardly exist without having their own personalized sense of fixing the world. A human temptation for many, it seems, would be to change the world if they could only figure out how. The article eventually leads to Hawthorne’s caution that reform for the sake of an ideal carries with it a terrible shadow if sought after without respect for its unintended consequences. Kessler points out:

“At the heart of the reformer is such wishful thinking: the world surely can’t remain so unjust, so immiserated, can it? This faith underlies the conviction that experimentation will save rather than spoil.
Although moved by such hope, the narrator finds that it underestimates the risk of reform. Because reformers fail to understand “the sphere in which their lot is cast,” their flailing attempts to plant happiness and reap virtue tear up the earth rather than cultivate it. Continually seduced by reform’s violent energy, the narrator urges his guide to move on: “let us hasten hence or I shall be tempted to make a theory, after which there is little hope of any man.”

Later on in the article Kessler brings us around to Hawthorne’s conclusion which is to seek a middle ground between The Hall of Fantasy where the imagination remains unfettered and that of the earthly life which forms us with a more grounded sense of reality:

“The alternative offered by the narrator is to keep faith in the world at all costs, to dampen the zeal for reform, to moderate both hope and despair. Perhaps things will slowly improve, and we will at least retain what is presently good. “The Hall of Fantasy” expresses this meliorism in the form of a homely earth-worship, in opposition to the more starry-eyed faiths of the fantasists whom the narrator has encountered in the hall. If the world is terminally imperfectible, then its human inhabitants face a choice: to call for its overcoming — or to suffer it with all the peace and even appreciation they can manage. Beyond the patient pursuit of a tenuous harmony between humanity and the earth, an answer will not be found — just a booming no, the rejection of all that is, the final despair.”

We are here close to the heart of the human condition which each of us finds ourselves in, even if evidenced only by the consequences of the choices we make as we live our earthly lives. Christianity, and especially monotheism, solves the puzzle of existence by placing the whole of creation in the lap of the one God who is both Creator and Destroyer of this world.  Our task is then to live such that Thy Will Be Done. The teleology here insists that the physical world must end and will be destroyed to make the world anew; finally and permanently perfected, happily ever-after. It’s a very compelling idea, but speaks primarily to the material world, even if it uses an immaterial God to do so.

But in our age of science and materialism, immersed in the long, tiresome account of man’s imperfections that human history leaves us with, it’s getting harder and harder for us moderns to feel the presence of a loving God, or any god(s), for that matter.

Perhaps too, God is no longer necessary when we live in a world in which we are surrounded both physically by the marvels of our man-made structures and psychically through the prominence of shared secular cultural experiences that come from television, politics, shopping and more recently the internet, all of which add to the sense that we are the creators. Technology drives culture, and our culture has been driven for quite some time towards secularism because necessity for anything metaphysical dwindles a bit more with each generation as long as material abundance increases.

Yes, there is plenty of push back against materialism and scientism, not only from Judeo/Christian and Muslim believers, but non-religious worldviews as well, as can be seen by the rise of neo-pagan and paranormal beliefs. But, it’s so incredibly hard to sustain any sort of metaphysical belief in a world where our primary fantasy has become something we now call reality. By the term reality, we specifically mean something non-psychic, concrete and objective that can be measured in the material world. So, when measured against our cultural prejudice of what we call reality, all things immaterial are at risk of losing their authenticity.

To our detriment, a loss of trust in anything that is not “real” includes losing a very large chunk of our human experience, for what else are such things as love, sadness, truth, fear, desire, and hope made of but something of a psychic nature? Psychic here meaning the non-material aspects of our human experience and not the paranormal phenomena as has become the common usage.

Here is where James Hillman’s return to the classical Greeks and the gods that inhabited their world are most helpful in creating a bridge from our modern deficient sense of reality as consisting of only the material world, to a sense of reality that includes a place for all things psyche. With psyche, Hillman returns us to the reality of mythological place such as the underworld in which Psyche not merely dwells in, but is; psyche is the underworld:

“The underworld is a realm of only psyche, purely psychical world. What one meets there is soul, as the figures Ulysses meets – Ajax, Anticleia, Agamemnon – are all psyches, and the way they move is compared with dreams; or to say this in another way, underworld is the mythological style of describing a psychological cosmos.
Put more bluntly: underworld is psyche. When we use the word underworld, we are referring to a wholly psychic perspective, where one’s entire mode of being has been desubstantialized, killed of natural life, and yet is in every shape and sense and size the exact replica of natural life.”
“There is no political solution
To our troubled evolution
Have no faith in constitution
There is no bloody revolution”
The Police

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