Alchemical Psychology – the Introduction

In my previous posts on James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology, I wrote briefly about the relationship between the colors of the alchemy and their correlation through the stages of the soul’s journey as one begins a work of a psychological nature. The links to those posts can be found on the Index page of this blog.

File:The Ordinall of Alchemy England Folio20.jpegAfter rereading Hillman’s book in preparation for an online class sponsored by the Jung Platform, I was sorry I had not included quotes from the introduction where he presents parallels between the work of the alchemists of old and the modern therapeutic journey as it has developed from the work of C.G. Jung.

Hillman begins by noting that “Alchemical language is a mode of therapy; it is itself therapeutic” and that therapy provides an attempt to heal our modern neurosis which he sees stems from our one-sided conscious framework.

“I am neurotic because of what goes on here and now, as I stand and look and talk, rather than what went on once, or goes in society, or in my dreams, fantasies, emotions, memories, symptoms. My neurosis resides in my mental set and the way it constructs the world and behaves in it.

Thus language must be an essential component of my neurosis. If I am neurotic, I am neurotic in language. Consequently, the one-sidedness that characterizes all neuroses in general is also to be found specifically as a one-sidedness in language.”

Perhaps for some, this may seem either too simplistic, or too difficult a pill to swallow. It rings remarkably true for me and as the years pass I find myself more interested in language usage, increasingly surprised by how attentiveness to thought and language brings many unexpected gifts. Language is powerful and part of what frames our reality. Also, it  is phenomenal, displaying our assumptions and perspective of the world we live in. Our use of language tells on us. But, as Hillman sees it, our language has fallen into conceptualizations, devoid of images. We learn concepts, concretizing them and believing in their reality even though lacking an imagination for them:

“We speak in concepts: the ego and the unconscious; libido, energy, and drive; opposites, regression, feeling-function, compensation, transference … When working with these terms we curiously forget that they are concepts only, barely useful for grasping psychic events, which they inadequately describe.”

…compared to alchemical and dream language which are full of imagery keeping us close to fantasy and imagination, potent tools for therapy, as was Freud’s “talking cure,” or what Hillman called soulmaking:

“The basic stuffs of personality – salt, sulfur, mercury, and lead – are concrete materials; the description of soul, aqua pinguis or aqua ardens, as well as words for states of soul, such as albedo and nigredo, incorporate events that one can touch and see. The work of soulmaking requires corrosive acids, heavy earths, ascending birds; there are sweating kings, dogs and bitches, stenches, urine, and blood. How like the language of our dreams and unlike the language into which we interpret the dreams.”

Contrary to modern notions that matter doesn’t matter, or that a focus on matter equals materialism, Hillman is attempting to realign our awareness of language’s effects so that things, and especially their qualities do matter. Alchemy then, can be seen as a work of the soul through the “redemption of matter” that can deliteralize our language precisely because alchemical language uses images that are nearly foreign to the modern world:

File:James Gillray - alchemy.jpeg“This seems to me to follow Jung’s dictum of dreaming the myth along. To do this we must speak dreamingly, imagistically – and materially. I have introduced “materially” at this juncture because we are close to the crunch, and the crunch of alchemy is matter. It is the crunch of our practice too – to make soul matter to the patient, to transform his/her sense of what matters.

Our speech itself can redeem matter if, on the one hand, it de-literalizes (de-substantiates) our concepts, distinguishing between words and things, and if, on the other hand, it re-materializes our concepts, giving them body, sense, and weight. We already do this inadvertently when we speak of what the patient brings as “material,” look for the “grounds” of his/her complaint, and also by trying to make “sense” of it all.”

The goal of the work, the Philosopher’s stone, through fantasy, imagination and metaphor allows for a multi-faceted layered sense of meaning in our personal everyday awareness because language, how we understand, hear and speak, is a primary way in which we interpret experience and understand ourselves and the world. We moderns live in a time where to know what something means often amounts to coming to a narrow and settled conclusion; a literal singleness of meaning in which our words fix for us a hardened notion of reality. Fantasy is then relegated to an extra-curricular artistic hobby rather than seen as latent or hidden in all we do and say.

The age of science and rationalism has created a fundamentalism that continues to divide us into denominations of belief systems, whether within schools of science, politics, genders or (non)religions. Collectively, we have so much faith in the existence of a one true reality, that we’ve created a necessity for making up our minds and being factual, inviting a battle over competing cosmologies. We have become distrustful of our natural curiosity and wonder relegating it to the realm of fantasy, a mere plaything. Language, rather than being the driver of our creativity now leads us into neurosis.

Imagistic language and metaphor might enliven the world through coming to trust our immediate senses and experience of things. A world alive could then be a world we could love, for who loves dead things? Does an inclination towards violence come from a response to the world in which we interpret before experiencing, using our fixed beliefs to destroy rather than our imagination to create?

“Again: abstract concepts, psychological nomina, that do not matter and bear weight, willy-nilly accrete ever more hardening, leaden immobility and fixation, becoming objects or idols of faith rather than living carriers of it.”

Lastly, Hillman understands the goal in alchemical psychology not as a romantic move to the past, but a therapeutic moving of the myth forward:

“It is not the literal return to alchemy that is necessary but a restoration of the alchemical mode of imagining. For in that mode we restore matter to our speech – and that, after all, is our aim: the restoration of imaginative matter, not of literal alchemy.”

All quotes from Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

45 thoughts on “Alchemical Psychology – the Introduction

  1. Really interesting post. I was drawn to similar passages as Don and William. I feel when I read your posts like a fish out of water, but like a fish who is expecting the air to be unbreathable, and discovers that is not entirely the case. I am taking on nourishment in unexpected ways, ways I didn’t know I had.

    When Hillman (and you) speak about matter, it is a wholly foreign concept to me. When you talk about the “redemption of matter”, by seeing beyond language to a matter that is open-ended, riddled with layers of meaning, and thereby transcendent (my interpretation and embellishment) part of me applauds, and the other part cautions that matter is a specific type of mystery- a self-resonating configuration of energy, a thing composed of a rhythmic type of nothing that cannot be defined…

    This quote reminds me how glad I am to be part of a world with beings in it who talk this way… “The work of soulmaking requires corrosive acids, heavy earths, ascending birds; there are sweating kings, dogs and bitches, stenches, urine, and blood.”

    This is for me, vitally important: “We moderns live in a time where to know what something means often amounts to coming to a narrow and settled conclusion.” As certain sources of wisdom to which I subscribe would say, “would we rather be right or happy…?”

    Thank you-
    Michael

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    • Thank you Michael,
      I so enjoy your thorough and insightful responses!

      Hopefully, my posts are not too obtuse. Language is tricky, of course, and I appreciate that you enjoy rolling through the ideas and entertaining their possible meanings.

      I take “redemption of matter” to suggest that there’s hidden value in things we moderns discard, or often use to give us a sense of power. That could be anything from over using natural resources, to undervaluing the furniture because it’s just dead stuff.

      I take Hillman to mean that all things, as well as events, evoke psyche and in that sense are not dead. So when a family member passes on, we all fight over their stuff, because the stuff is a carrier of psyche or soul.

      Yes, I know I’d rather be happy. Years ago it occurred to me that it’s not just you or I that are capable of being right or wrong, but the ideas themselves. That thought led me to one of those transformative moments that you mentioned in a recent post. 🙂 And although I still have my favorite ideas, I’m quite sure they made their way into my life through a series of people, gods and events that I’ll never completely be aware of.

      That’s the thread though, yes?
      Weave and spin, weave and spin.
      xxx
      Debra

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      • I enjoy your posts thoroughly, and they are in no way obtuse, but we do, I suspect, come from backgrounds where we’ve spent considerable time mulling things over in a particular languaging and perspective. Because we’ve sought something whole, we can reach across easily, but in doing so we come to understand our own views in new ways. It is a really good thing for me I think.

        I don’t think I know enough Hillman to respond properly to your note here, but I see some juicy questions. My takeaway is that devaluing everything because we think we know what it is- like that is ‘just’ a watch, or ‘just’ an inanimate object, doesn’t do justice to what is. I know for myself it leaves me feeling empty. On the other hand, (and I agree with the previous if I have interpreted correctly), I see a pitfall in forming attachments to the matter around us, and by attachment I mean a stance in which the representative replaces the reality- so a departed relative’s scarf has this ‘something’ that makes it more than ‘just’ a piece of colored cloth, but also the scarf is only a reminder to the reality of relationship that existed between ourselves and others, between another and her scarf, etc. If we try and make the scarf ‘It’, we are sunk as well.

        Close? Matter without contact with the sacred is meaningless. Matter that sour plants the sacred becomes meaningless. Matter that is the medium in which the sacred dances… Now that is something…

        Michael

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      • Hi Michael,

        Yes, you recap in an amazingly insightful manner! I love the dance we do here with language to reach across the variations of perspective. You have, I think, an amazing ability to do that. 🙂

        I’ll only add that I see the “ten thousand things” that find us are, even when we think they might be, less of an attachment but rather a relationship that reveals itself to us from our attentiveness and awareness and the bridge-building created from us to the so-called object. Building the bridge and understanding thingyness as relationship rather than objects, may be the redemptive move.

        Perhaps, that is what your “medium in which the sacred dances” refers to?

        Debra

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  2. Nice post.

    I’ve written two kinds of ways, analytically and poetically with lyrical prose. By far, I cherish my writing that incorporates lyrical prose. To me it feels beautiful to read, it feels even more beautiful to write with lyrical prose.

    One of my favorite quotes:

    “Analysis destroys wholes. Some things, magic things, are meant to stay whole. If you look at their pieces, they go away.”

    ~ Robert James Waller, The Bridges of Madison County

    That’s kind of one of the dehumanizing effects of our modern life. It destroys magic, expects us to ignore our sensory experiences and neglect our bodies as if they are merely the vehicle with which to transport our brains.

    Casey

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  3. I use Archetypal Psychology (a la Jung, Hillman, Jacobi, TRobertson, and Charles Bebeau) centrally in my Life Maps Process (upcoming book, LIFE PATHS; already published: The Life map as an Implicit Cognitive Structure Underlying Behavior). I have developed an approach that allows mapping situational archeypes over the life course, and an Archetype Dialogue process. I will follow/ look forward to your posts!

    Like

      • Here’s a good line from Jung: “For every typical situation in life, there is an archetype associated with that situation. I let people associate 12 universal archetypes (Sumerian derived) to Life Themes they self-identity with kinds of significant life events. Then I let them meet&greet these archetypes and enlist them as an “ensemble cast’. LW

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  4. Excellent post. Very clear and informative. If you and/or anyone are interested in Wittgenstein, I can recommend a very good biography of him which interweaves his life and ideas – (rather like the excellent first volume of the biography of James Hillman written by Dick Russell). Its called “The Duty of Genius” by Ray Monk.

    Like

    • Thank you for the tip!

      Sometimes the bios are much more approachable with dense writing. Although I no longer find Hillman dense, I too, really enjoyed Russell’s bio and cannot wait for Volume II.

      Like

  5. “We moderns live in a time where to know what something means often amounts to coming to a narrow and settled conclusion; a literal singleness of meaning in which our words fix for us a hardened notion of reality.”

    Just a brilliant description. I warm to this Debra. That’s why when I hear people expressing the need to transcend myth and mythical expression I’m not sure what they are getting at or mean.When we let go of that kind of expression we simply fall in to that literal singleness you speak of. Again, wonderful post – thank you.

    Like

  6. This was a delight to read – thank-you! I especially appreciated this inclusion: “We speak in concepts: the ego and the unconscious; libido, energy, and drive; opposites, regression, feeling-function, compensation, transference … When working with these terms we curiously forget that they are concepts only, barely useful for grasping psychic events, which they inadequately describe.”

    …compared to alchemical and dream language which are full of imagery keeping us close to fantasy and imagination, potent tools for therapy, as was Freud’s “talking cure,” or what Hillman called soulmaking:

    I think how we frame, (and constantly need to re-frame) our perceptions and notions of ‘reality’ is key to the ensouling of our world. If we do not see and acknowledge the manifestations of soul all around us, through the use of our language, do we contribute to the deadening systems that ensnare us? Fundamentalist concepts and language, as you so rightly pointed out, are a lifeless, soulless way of being and thinking about the world we live in.

    And thank-you so much for including me on your web page!

    Like

    • Hi Margaret! Thank you for sharing your insights here! I have enjoyed reading your blog.

      “If we do not see and acknowledge the manifestations of soul all around us, through the use of our language, do we contribute to the deadening systems that ensnare us?”

      Yes, I believe we do. It’s as if we are trying to manage reality, lol, which shrinks it and cuts us off from the amazing world we live in.
      Debra

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      • As I progress down this path of being as the Indigo Girls said, “prostrate to higher mind, got my paper and I was free,” I will be looking to your experience with Mr. Hillman more and more and that is exciting for me.

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      • And as well, you have accumulated your own storehouse of treasures for all you have survived. Never under estimate the power of your own experience.

        But I am happy to have been given something and to be able to pass it on. Hillman continues to teach and inspire me.

        Thank you again for your kindness to me. You do inspire me to keep writing.
        xxx
        Debra

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  7. Matter matters! I also love the concept of restoration of imaginative matter, for that matter. But enough of the idle puns. “Language, rather than being the driver of our creativity now leads us into neurosis.” Often language creates differences and conflict where there is no need for them. But we do not have anything better than the language to express ourselves, do we? I am looking forward to the whole series, Debra. I have a feeling it will be a treat.

    Like

    • Yes, I used to really despise language for its inadequacies, lol! Then I realized it was my fault for not learning enough language and spending more time with words and ideas.

      I do hope the class is lively and interesting Monika, and look forward to writing about it.
      PS, l love your puns…:)
      xxx
      Debra

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  8. I love this comment:

    “We moderns live in a time where to know what something means often amounts to coming to a narrow and settled conclusion; a literal singleness of meaning in which our words fix for us a hardened notion of reality. Fantasy is then delegated to an extra-curricular artistic hobby rather than seen as latent or hidden in all we do and say.

    The age of science and rationalism has created a fundamentalism that continues to divide us into denominations of belief systems, whether within schools of science, politics, genders or (non)religions. Collectively, we have so much faith in the existence of a one true reality, that we’ve created a necessity for making up our minds and being factual, inviting a battle over competing cosmologies. We have become distrustful of our natural curiosity and wonder delegating it to the realm of fantasy, a mere plaything. Language, rather than being the driver of our creativity now leads us into neurosis.”

    Thank you for sharing.

    Peace,
    W. Ockham

    Like

  9. Our speech itself can redeem matter if, on the one hand, it de-literalizes (de-substantiates) our concepts, distinguishing between words and things, and if, on the other hand, it re-materializes our concepts, giving them body, sense, and weight. We already do this inadvertently when we speak of what the patient brings as “material,” look for the “grounds” of his/her complaint, and also by trying to make “sense” of it all.”

    I had a mini-epiphany will reading this Debra. We often blindly use language and take it for granted, not recognizing its richness and vitality. When we begin to use it more consciously, perhaps we can also live more authentically.

    Hope this comment makes “sense” to you.

    xx Linda

    Like

    • Hi Linda! I love mini-epiphanies! I am happy the post made some sense 🙂

      Yes, I agree, it is so easy to take language for granted and I think you’re right that using it consciously does give us a feeling of authenticity.

      Earlier in my life, that was sorely missing, but as I get older it seems I am gaining an understanding of what it is to be, at least on better days, authentic.
      xxx
      Debra

      Like

  10. I really enjoyed this, and the following was one of my favorite parts: “It rings remarkably true for me and as the years pass I find myself more interested in language usage, increasingly surprised by how attentiveness to thought and language brings many unexpected gifts. Language is powerful and part of what frames our reality. Also, it is phenomenal, displaying our assumptions and perspective of the world we live in. Our use of language tells on us. But, as Hillman sees it, our language has fallen into conceptualizations, devoid of images. We learn concepts, concretizing them and believing in their reality even though lacking an imagination for them …” I especially like when you write that our use of language tells on us. This post has given me new hope to face the volumes of Wittgenstein that I have bought over the years and have struggled so much to understand.

    Like

    • Oh, I have also been curious about Wittgenstein, but a little fearful too. He seems daunting, but that might be completely off the mark. Maybe this will be the year?

      I hope you dive in and share with us your insights Paul!

      Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts here!

      Like

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