Class Notes – Session Two

If you missed it and are interested, you’ll find my notes on Session One here.

After the second class on James Hillman’s, Alchemical Psychology, I find myself at odds. Something seems to be missing. The hosts, Patricia Berry and Robert Bosnak, engaged in a wonderful discussion about the nature of the vessel and the use of heat in alchemical work.

However, I think we may be at risk of losing Hillman’s ideas about language presented in the introduction of his book. Beginning the work with more of an emphasis on the problem of language, we might invite Hillman’s work and voice into the classroom.

File:Arcimboldo Fire.jpgHillman’s book starts by asserting that it is our speech that needs therapy, to release us from “this massive curse of Western consciousness.” The tendency to literalize language is to miss its function as a referent. To “literalize” is to constrict words to a “singleness of meaning,” compared to metaphorical language, where the imagination naturally perceives multiple and layered meanings.

“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.”

It is because alchemical language is so foreign to us that it does present an opportunity to see through our “massive curse.”

“Alchemy gives us a language of substance which cannot be taken substantively, concrete expressions which are not literal. This is its therapeutic effect: it forces metaphor upon us. We are carried by the language into an as-if, into both the materialization of the psyche and the psychization of matter as we utter our words.”

Especially in our psychological and therapeutic language we hear jargon particular to each school of thought,  some of which has found its way into the culture. When we cannot hear the metaphors and fantasies in the language we use, we fail to recognize that our imagination is the primary mode of perception and we get stuck in a myth called Reality. It’s possible to forget, or not be aware that language’s task of referring to something beyond itself, works by filtering and delimiting the fluid motion of the reality we can never completely perceive.

“Conceptual language, however, is not self-evidently metaphor. It is too contemporary to be transparent; we are living right in its midst. Its myth is going on all about us, so it does not have a metaphorical sense built in it. I do now know, cannot see, that I am really not composed of an ego and self, a feeling function and a power drive, castration anxiety and depressive positions. These seem literally real to me, despite the experience that even as I use these terms, there is a haunting worthlessness about them.”

The genius of Hillman is that he saw the poetic basis of mind and insisted that image is primary, therefore all language and speech is of the imagination. As he so often said, we are in psyche, not the other way around.

“But our psychological language has become literally real to us, despite nominalism, because the psyche needs to demonize and personify, which in language becomes the need to substantiate. The psyche animates the material world it inhabits. Language is part of this animating activity (e.g., onomatopoeic speech with which language is supposed to have “begun”). Unless my language meets the need to substantiate, then the psyche substantiates anyway, unawares, hardening my concepts into physical or metaphysical things.”

So conceptual words become imageless things. As soon as we lose the sense of metaphor, trading images for concepts, we risk being stuck in a container of concepts we are unable to get out of. Images can never be fully contained for every picture is worth a thousand words.

“I said that the one-sidedness of neurosis perpetuates in our psychological language, its conceptual rationalism. One-sidedness – that general definition of neurosis – now becomes more precise. It can now be seen to refer to the grasping nature of our grasping tools, our concepts, which organize the psyche according to their shape. Our concepts extend their grasp over the concretely vivid images by abstracting (literally, “drawing away”) their matter. We no longer see the clay funeral urn or the iron pot-bellied stove, but “the Great Mother”; no longer the sea just beyond the harbor, the sewer blocked with muck, or a dark pathless forest, but “the Unconscious.” “

To understand the value of an alchemical psychology, before we speak of the vessel and the heat, we need to be wary of the inclination to harden our insights into something “real,” and also to understand that imagination isn’t something we need to work on, create or get more of, but something already going on, hard to see, and more so when we call what we see reality.

“According to Jung, neurosis is splitting, and therapy is joining. If our conceptual language splits by abstracting matter from image and speaking only from one side, then the as-if of metaphor is itself psychotherapy because it keeps two or more levels distinct – whether words and things, events and meanings, connotations and denotations – joining them together in the word itself. As the coniunctio is an imaged metaphor, so metaphors are the spoken coniunctio.

Especially, our one-sided language splits immaterial psyche from soulless matter. Our concepts have so defined these words that we forget that matter is a concept “in the mind,” a psychic fantasy, and that soul is our living experience amid things and bodies “in the world.” “

Hillman’s claim that we are “neurotic in speech,” in need of a “therapy of ideas,” are essential insights for an initiation into a more skillful dive into the depths of an Alchemical Psychology.

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

25 thoughts on “Class Notes – Session Two

  1. Debra,

    These posts say a lot and I take a lot away from them. I also end up saying to myself, “what’s he really saying?” I think I understand the notion you presented with respect to language concretizing into a “thing” that obscures the far broader phenomenon to which it refers.

    I was particularly drawn to the passage you wrote about imagination as being something “already going on”, of it not being something that we can get more or less of, but something perhaps hard to grasp, with the task being made more difficult by our insistence that what we see and name is “reality”.

    To me that says the world is like a real-time painting in which the painters are immersed. It is imagination. Painting is happening. When we decide we know what everything is, our awareness of the fact that painting is happening dims, and perhaps is even lost. The trees behave reliably. Obviously, because they are trees. This isn’t a painting, it’s a forest, and those are trees. It seems the dimming occurs because if everything is already understood, or bracketed by this immovable conceptual identity, we deprive the world (the painting) of the movement and fluidity on which it is based.

    That makes a lot of sense to me. It is hard to swallow the idea that the world is imagination in the way I think most people use the word, however. Ha! Here we go… I can accept completely that the world around me is imagined, but the Imaginer(s) have incredible consistency. I mean, some aspects of quantum mechanics have been tested to something like tens or hundreds of decimal places. Over and over and over. But I also think, perhaps to the point you are making, (or perhaps I’m way off!), any sensations of limit or brackets upon possibility that we derive from observing this consistency are perhaps false, and due in part to this problem of saying, “See, look. We know what this is. We know how it all works. We know what is possible. Here is our evidence.”

    Repeatability of phenomena is not evidence of any such conclusions. It merely means Imagination imagined a tree. That’s not to say it couldn’t imagine something else… Am I in left field yet?



    1. Hi Michael,

      I think you are getting the point well with this:

      “To me that says the world is like a real-time painting in which the painters are immersed. It is imagination.”

      Yes. The painters are the painting and the painters.

      Immersion!! Wonderful image!

      Anytime we use words, even if we are aware that they are referencing a preverbal wholeness that we are immersed in, by their very nature, words define and so contain or reduce the whole into parts which can then become separated, in our thoughts anyway, from the whole.

      We see the parts and forget the whole.

      The point you make later is wonderful – that we easily fall prey to thinking we know, because it’s both convenient to use habits of framing our world, and it allows us to use the power of separating ourselves from the whole to manipulate (I’m not making a moral statement here, but being figurative) our environment.

      Especially in the last 1,000 years, the West has become very good at manipulating the parts because we can reduce and abstract wholes into parts.

      It’s not that we shouldn’t separate the parts of the whole and use them to manipulate the world. But, when we take the separation too seriously, we may separate ourselves so far from the whole that we deaden the world, or deanimate it.

      And, once the world is deanimated, we will suffer the same fate because our separation in turn becomes alienation. We lose all perspective trapping ourselves in a fantasy of our own making; that we are separate beings. We no longer feel that we are a part of, that we belong, because the habit of perspective we now have we believe is the only perspective.

      I think that is why we believe and imagine a “reality” out there. That belief comes from the separation we feel.

      When we see that our felt sense of separation is one perspective among many, we can lighten up a bit and reimagine the world again to see that we are immersed in the whole.

      I think this is the gist of all the great religions and mystics, even though they have different imagery or models to understand our situation.

      Immersion in the whole more accurately sees us placed inside the world. As Alan Watts used to say (and probably others), we do not come into the world, but come from it.

      Thank you for furthering this crazy attempt to find words for something that resists language!



      1. Thanks, Debra. Your note made me realize the extent to which I do tend to instinctively contemplate and/or believe that reality is “out there”. Except when I don’t. Ha! I mean, I believe in an inner reality, but I think we experience some sort of phenomenological gap between the inner and the outer that IS our separation. I was thinking of this a lot today, and wondering about the experience of being within Reality as a fluid, contiguous, integral representation.

        I think I have glimpses of this. I think we all do. And I think it can become sustainable. Repairing Humpty Dumpty can only occur in that state of wholeness, though. I’m increasing convinced of that.

        Thanks for offering footholds one can find to aid in climbing back into the Whole.



      2. “I think I have glimpses of this. I think we all do. And I think it can become sustainable.”

        Hi Michael,

        It’s so tricky, yes? …and for me as it is now, remains a daily practice to perceive myself, others and all that is, as being in the whole.

        This practice though continues to bring gifts of understanding, meaning, compassion and love, for oneself, others and the beauty of the world.

        It seems too, that it is a door, that when opened, ceases to be a door, but opens up into something much bigger and more beautiful.

        Be assured too, that these shares of ours, also bring me gifts, as I ponder deeply our discussion, which help me to articulate something that comes to me as water comes from a well.



  2. Debra,
    Oops, I forgot one point.
    Whenever I have a discussion with someone today, the first point I try to remember to make is to say that we need to agree on the definitions of terms. Not surprisingly, that is the biggest block to effective communication.


      1. Debra,
        I also emailed you. Thanks for being a motivator into getting further into Mr. Hillman. Some of his earlier stuff I find to be too wordy, like was said earlier, but I think he has as much a connection to moving forward socially and psychologically as anyone I know. I think Campbell is correct in how we can do better in the world, but people need to hear it differently than 1000s of year old mythical Gods. I dont think they will hear it. We are too instantaneous, need it now.
        Sorry I just see it that way.


      2. I agree Jim. Hillman’s references are too obscure for many people.

        I do puzzle over this and think perhaps that Hillman’s ideas can help us to think in images. They don’t have to be images of Greek Gods, as long as we keep returning to images, rather than conceptualizing them.

        I think Jung knew this too, but through the development of a school of analysts, the concepts were easier to teach. People tend to want something concrete to hold on to and concepts give us that. Unfortunately concepts tend to separate us from our actual experiences and fool us into the idea that we can have power over things by naming them.


  3. “Alchemy gives us a language of substance which cannot be taken substantively, concrete expressions which are not literal. This is its therapeutic effect: it forces metaphor upon us.”
    This is where it is up to people like you and I to do the work necessary so we the world as wonder full again. To teach ourselves as well as the others who will follow us to see it is an awe full experience. Yes I know those words didn’t work well in the last sentence so well.
    I am saddened that your experience is turning out the way it is for you, in this moment. It can and most probably will because of you and your experiences that you can use to help those we can help.
    Until we can get to metaphor again, see life as a big picture again, we will blindly follow the next solution to our dis-ease that comes along.
    Keep up the work. It helps me Debra


    1. Thanks so much Jim. Your support and friendship is very much appreciated.

      I am trying to stay open-minded that the class will deepen and the exchange between the hosts will include more of Hillman’s work.

      Yes, it’s a great and challenging work to stay open, and as you say, to not blindly follow the flavor of the day solutions.


  4. The tendency to literalize language is to miss its function as a referent. To ”literalize” is to constrict words to a “singleness of meaning,” compared to metaphorical language, where the imagination naturally perceives multiple and layered meanings.

    This was hard for me, sometimes. I spent a lot of time ‘arguing’ semantics with a friend of mine who I’d corresponded with for four years. So much to the point that in the end, I had no idea if we even communicated well at all. I’d read a passage and have NO Idea what was meant, because of the layered meanings. Or I’d get a mini-lecture, complete with the etymology of a particular word I used. And there were some commonly used expressions, or colloquialisms I was unfamiliar with, or being used in a strange way, and all of a sudden, I had NO idea what was being said.

    It was painful at times, because I only wanted understanding, but sometimes language got in the way. And while I do like poetical language, poetry itself sometimes trips me up when people use metaphors that obscure what they are really trying to say. I don’t know if that’s what they truly intend to do, or I’m trying to literalize the language too much.

    This reminds me of a James Thurber quote:

    “There are two kinds of light–the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures.”

    If I was a light, I’d really want to be the glow that illuminates…



    1. Hi Casey,
      Thank you your insightful comments.

      It is perhaps one of the biggest challenges I know of to understand others and to feel understood.

      Each of us seems to be a foreign language, or a poem, that when we take enough time to listen to, we then begin to understand.

      Or that is how I try to experience people.


      1. I don’t necessarily think I have any great insight. I just know I’ve had stumbling blocks in the area of communication.

        I often need to listen with the heart, not the head. Sometimes I can do this, other times, not so well.

        My friend and I had a lot of the same personality traits and some similar experiences, and so we often butted heads because we were both kind of stubborn. I think we, at times, just held to our positions because we were still led strongly by ego. We awoke strong emotion in each other, so I’m sure that didn’t help matters.

        “Each of us seems to be a foreign language, or a poem, that when we take enough time to listen to, we then begin to understand. Or that is how I try to experience people. ”

        That’s pretty neat. I like that a lot.


    1. Thank you Monika!
      It means a lot to me to have your support.

      I worry that my concerns might be taken the wrong way by classmates and, or the hosts, or perhaps even anyone reading here.


  5. Perhaps the lesson that emerges from this class will be the affirmation of your own perceptions and conclusions. What comes to mind is Joseph Campbell’s image – that we all have to enter the forest at the place that seems best. Thanks for this update.


  6. Very true, I think it was Stephen Gallegos who said that in visionary work people should remember that the psychological habit of analyzing everything is extremely rude to the spirits that come to visit. His advice, as I recall, was something like please notice the huge difference in your relationships when you respond to some one knocking on your door by inviting them in for tea and conversation or by slamming the door in their face and leaving them on the step while you ponder what they symbolize.


  7. Debra,
    I am finishing up my papers for class today. I enjoyed reading the article but can’t give it the necessary time to internalize it enough to articulate my response. I will tomorrow!!
    Wonder full!!!!


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