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.
After 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:
“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.