“I” is an Aggregate

Terminology, concepts, definitions; these subtle attributes of our understanding seem somewhat neglected and confused in our culture. One of the joys for me of studying both Jung’s Analytical Psychology and Hillman’s notion of Archetypal Psychology, is to participate in an ongoing conversation of the fundaments of human nature.

In this next installment of examining James Hillman’s book, Anima, and Anatomy of a Personified Notion, we look at the notion of Ego, and especially its relation to Jung’s idea of the Conscious, as he understood these terms. Ego, as an idea, concept or definition, has been with us for a very long time and has a complex history of both usage and meaning. Perhaps this is fitting for a word that takes on the impossible task of serving as a single referent for the total sum of who we are.

For Jung, ego was sometimes used to refer to the conscious self, but not always, and especially not in his discussion of the soul’s movement toward Individuation, or Wholeness. Hillman says:

The ego as base of consciousness has always been an anachronistic part of analytical psychology. It is a historical truth that our Western tradition has identified ego with consciousness… But this part of Jung’s thought does not sit well with either his notion of psychic reality or his therapeutic goals of psychic consciousness. What brings cure is archetypal consciousness (mediated by the anima as we know from other passages), and his notion of consciousness is definitely not based upon ego.

Here he quotes Jung:

It is as though, at the climax of the illness, the destructive powers were converted into healing forces. This is brought about by the archetypes awaking to independent life and taking over the guidance of the psychic personality, thus supplanting the ego with its fertile willing and striving… the psyche has awakened to spontaneous activity….something that is not his ego and is therefore beyond the reach of his personal will. He has regained access to the sources of psychic life, and this marks the beginning of the cure. (CW 11, 534)

Hillman continues examining the notions of ego, consciousness and their relationship to anima and animus. He notes definitions by Bachelard and Onians that see anima as the reflective navigator of consciousness, and animus as the possessive owner of it. He then brings us back to Jung’s idea of the relativization of the ego to consciousness, a very important idea for what Hillman calls archetypal consciousness.

The ‘relativization of the ego,” that work and that goal of the fantasy of individuation, is made possible, however, from the beginning if we shift our conception of the base of consciousness from ego to anima archetype, from I to soul. Then one realizes from the very beginning (a priori and by definition) that the ego and all its developmental fantasies were never, even at the start, the fundament of consciousness, because consciousness refers to a process more to do with images than will, with reflection rather than control, with reflective insight into, rather than manipulation of, ‘objective reality.’

Poem of the Soul - The flight of the soul. Courtesy of Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon - Public Domain

Poem of the Soul – The flight of the soul. Courtesy of Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon – Public Domain

This, I believe, expresses the heart of Hillman’s insights into Jung’s brilliant work. Perhaps if the images that consciousness continually streams are too quickly interpreted by that historical aggregate we call ‘I’; dismissed, ignored, or entirely off the radar of our awareness, we are left with whatever the aggregate, habit of self has the capacity for, leaving no possibilty for the awareness that anything lies beneath the stream of consciousness, or that there even is a stream, and especially not one of our own making.

An unrelativized ego becomes both the possessor and the possessed, habitually literalizing one’s stream of consciousness into objects that one understands, controls, and that in turn, control the entire state of being of a person’s waking, conscious, experience.

By contrast, an animated, soulful experience of waking states challenges all tempts to possess one’s conscious experience, becoming more aware through time and practice that all ideas and moods are subject to archetypal influence. Just as we cannot lay claim to that which beats our heart, we cannot lay sole claim to the source of our thoughts, ideas or feelings that stream into awareness as pure, raw images.

The Unseen I

“The unseen eye remind me of a midnight dream

You know it remind me of somebody I have never seen”

Sonny Boy Williamson

What is meant when we say, “I?” What we know of self and other may only be an immediate perception; a glance, a choice of words or clothing, a smell, or intuitions of recognition and deception – all steps on a never-quite-finished bridge from me to you.

For some, who we are is an idea so old and tiresome it’s no longer compelling or useful to ponder. The impossibility of knowing lessens the value of our imaginings. Whoever or whatever we are seems too slippery, incomprehensible or mercurial to be grasped; void of any tangible meaning worth imagining. For who is it that imagines the very self we want to comprehend? Are there then two of me? Ugh.

Yet, the life span of the body, the persona of an “I,” accumulates, weaving time and memory into a continuous sense of me. Underneath the limits of language, essentially there is something here, even if definition and identity fail to uphold an enduring portrait. With depths hidden even to oneself, others will see even less than that.

As much as we moderns may disparage the separateness that the “I” invokes, seeing the very notion as the source of strife, conflict and suffering, who among us could tolerate being unselved, without the opportunity to feel and respond uniquely as we do? What there is to know of self and other, begins with what shows up, and continues with what is revealed.

And, do we ever act completely independently of others? Are not others just as much ungraspable, mysterious extensions of our (in)ability to differentiate? Perhaps the drive to differentiate is the very thing compelling us to see anew. For who would remain an undifferentiated “I” sees neither others nor themselves. The more we are able to differentiate subtle distinctions, the more articulate our responses. From that comes an ability to see more of the whole.

The palette expands though not for quantities sake, but for quality – where beauty, love and compassion, already rooted in our being, respond as a tree to moisture and sunlight. What we learn through distinction and relationship is to appreciate the strange, the unknown which afford us access to the source of creation, that unseen I.

Like others, I am driven by both an urge to see, comprehend, understand and to reveal. But the double-edged sword of seeing and revealing will admit that through differentiating, focusing, defining, or what alchemy calls the separatio – necessary as they are, are themselves a mode of perception and never the whole story.

A time of darkness, not seeing, not even looking, can then become a place for renewal. Like the womb of our birthing, the dark periods of life can seem forbidden, empty, neither separate, nor unified, but a place of mystery of life itself, as necessary as food and shelter. Willingly or not, sometimes we find ourselves in the dark womb. Immersed in undifferentiated unity, we now belong, unquestionably protected and loved. The noun and verb as one, actor and act, lover and beloved, creator and created, heaven earthing, no “I” here to see or be seen.

It has only been with age that I begin to see “as above, so below.” As above, my life embodies the pulse of the universe as comings and goings, and like the weather, I watch and tend to them as best as I can, trusting in an unseen “I.”

File:NGC 3132 "Southern Ring".jpg

A jewel of the southern sky, NGC 3132 – Judy Schmidt

The unseen “I” immersed in the womb, sleeps and dreams itself into the next incarnation. Is there only one “I?” Perhaps that is so, and we may sense this strongly in times of convergence where the walls tumble-down, “things” smear into undifferentiated unity. No worry. Perhaps you’ve slipped back into the womb.

Time, the stream that moves us like seeds in the wind, needs us – our small life, in ways we may never fully understand, both giving illusions and taking them away, articulating the woven body of “I” into the cosmos, feeding and nurturing new life, hidden, fallow, unseen. Then perhaps what begins with desire, is fulfilled through the love of the unseen I, forever creating, destroying and renewing.