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.
Hillman’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.