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.

Ta’wil and the Ideas of Henry Corbin

“Ta’wil, the archetypal act of hermeneutics, that primary human activity overseen by Hermes who carries messages between the gods and mortals, is life lived at its highest pitch of intensity. It is the archaic and primordial experience of enacting meaning in the world. It is life lived in the full blaze of reality.” Tom Cheetham

Philosopher, theologian and professor of Islamic studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, Henry Corbin was also an acquaintance of James Hillman and C.G. Jung. All three had lectured at the Eranos Foundation Conferences during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and were familiar with each other’s works. Their influence on each other can be seen particularly in their writings on myth, symbol and archetypes, and although I am familiar with Jung and Hillman, it has been more of a challenge to find Corbin’s works.

I did however, recently discover a book devoted to Corbin’s ideas written by Tom Cheetham titled, All the World an Icon, Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings. This book is perhaps the best book I have read this year, and will forever remain near and dear to my heart. I would still love to read Corbin’s works, but Cheetham nicely condenses his ideas, adding his own insights that in no way detract or interfere with the complexity and beauty of the ideas presented.

Corbin was a Parisian, fascinated by what he saw as an underlying ecumenical thread between the religions of the Book; Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He was particularly interested in the similarity of the direct experience of the divine found in the mystical and contemplative traditions of all of these religions but particularly within the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, Rumi and Avicenna.

Underlying the religions of the west and perhaps in human nature itself, is a move toward finding or creating a bridge from the individual to the divine and back again. It is through our work and our devotion that we experience glimpses of the divine and move toward becoming our true nature. Corbin says that whether we are aware and attentive or not to the presence of the Divine, there’s an angelic function that connects us to a divine image of ourselves as a whole and true but individual being. Through the repeating themes and desires within our hearts we can sense this image, but it is always remembered and kept by our angel. Reading about this idea reminded me of Hillman’s Acorn Theory described in his book The Soul’s Code and spoken of here:

“It is a worldwide myth in which each person comes into the world with something to do and to be. The myth says we enter the world with a calling. Plato, in his Myth of Er, called this our paradeigma, meaning a basic form that encompasses our entire destinies. This accompanying image shadowing our lives is our bearer of fate and fortune.” James Hillman

We are then, as the title of Cheetham’s fourth chapter of his book says, “in search of the lost speech”, and the Ta’wil, as Corbin says, involves an ability to hear language as one hears music:

“The ta’wil, without question, is a matter of harmonic perception, of hearing an identical sound (the same verse, the same hadith, even an entire text) on several levels simultaneously.”

File:A Sufi in Ecstasy in a Landscape LACMA M.73.5.582.jpgThe prophet, Cheetham reminds us, is not one who foretells the future but a messenger just as angels are understood to be. So perhaps a prophet is one who hears their angel, and in the religions of the book, the Word is then the voice of the Divine which comes to us and speaks through us when we are able to perceive and understand this mode of language. Fragmentation, literalism and Fundamentalism hinder our ability to open up to receive the messages of the divine without which our experience suffers from the “lost speech” where hearing becomes reduced to that of one voice, one truth. In the drama of lost speech an ear for harmony, metaphor, symbolism and poetics is devalued, ignored, forbidden or forgotten. Says Corbin:

“from the instant that men fail to recognize or refuse this interior meaning, from that instant they mutilate the unity of the Word … and begin the drama of the ‘Lost Speech .’”

The symbol in particular carries a message for each of us as we privately experience the power that comes from its numinous quality. We know it’s important even before we can say anything about it as we sense interiority and depth from the way in which we are touched by it. Cheetham writes:

“The encounter with a symbol is essentially an individual experience. This is the kind of meaning that Corbin calls “interior.” It cannot be made public. You can describe it, but only someone who has had a similar experience will know what kind of event you are talking about.”

Inner meaning is perhaps fragile, elusive and susceptible to our doubt or inclination to ignore it because of the fact that it is unverifiably your experience alone. Cheetham, in the quote below, nicely states our apprehension and our struggles with these events, but also pleads for the importance of the understanding of a speech as containing the depth and richness that is transformative when we can hear it.

As this post is getting long and there is much more to the Ta ‘wil to ponder, I’ll end here with this wonderful quote:

“The interior meanings are necessarily plural and in perennial conflict with every social and political will to power and domination. But whether we refuse it out of fear or ignore it out of inattention, willfully suppress it in the interests of political power, or miss it for some other reason, the interior meaning is hidden under the public meaning, and it is easier to leave it there. And yet the literal meaning is only the shell of reality, and in the long run it is not enough. For with only that public meaning available, the world loses its depth and mystery.

We lose contact with our individuality and are prey to totalitarianisms and fundamentalisms of all kinds—intellectual, spiritual, and political. And once totalitarian domination— the reign of Terror, and the dominion of Death— has obliterated the inner meaning of the word , once access to the heart of language is well and truly lost, its recovery, its re-creation, lies at the very limits of human capacity. We are fated to be actors in the grand drama of the Lost Word, the lost speech.”

Except otherwise noted, all quotes from Cheetham, Tom (2012-07-03). All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings . North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.

A link to Cheetham’s website dedicated to the works on Corbin:

And an interview here:

Our Lady of the Well

Language is originally and essentially nothing but a system of signs or symbols, which denote real occurrences, or their echo in the human soul.” Carl Jung, Psychology of the Unconscious

In the midst of reading Jung’s Red Book, the idea of words and language and their relationship to the underlying wordless reality has begun to haunt me. I understand that trying to use language to discuss language presents the same problem as does seeing the eye with your own eye, but if that’s the case, where does that leave us? Can we trust language, can we not trust it?

What is the difference between the world we create through the understanding and choice of our words and the unspoken essence that cannot seem to be put into words? When we cannot articulate the pure essence of the ineffable, assuming that there is one, how can we know it when and if we do? I know the world goes on, but all the searches for truth seem to be suspect if we cannot locate the bridge between language and what it tries to convey. Even if this problem is only sensed, maybe it can partially account for why there is mistrust between people with differing opinions?

“Words are the physicians of the mind diseased.” Aeschylus (525 BC – 456 BC), Prometheus Bound

How close does language come to articulating all that the world is, or as some might say reality? Can language only approximate reality? How do we know? So much, it seems can be taken for granted in the natural ease of our speech and use of language.

But if there is, and I believe there is, a world apart from language, can we prove that? And if not with language than with what? I wouldn’t say math because it too is a language, a representation, yes?

 “Touches are better than words, but words are better than nothing.” Dick Summer

Who hasn’t sensed that there is an underlying-ness that language approximates by putting the ineffable into words? A metaphor that works for me in describing the ineffable is the image of a well, a very deep well and that when we have immediate, non-verbal experiences in which we sense that there’s something beyond, we’ve fallen in the well. Resurfacing allows us to live in both worlds by using a bucket to visit the depths by dipping down into the well. But as much as I like this metaphor and sense it pointing to a truth, maybe it doesn’t. Or does it?

Is it consensus then? If enough people sense and agree that a metaphor approximates reality, do we then know the truth?

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” Benjamin Lee Whorf

We might think that animals don’t have language or certainly trees, plants, stones and the elements don’t have language, but maybe they do. Jung often noted that psyche and soma are inseparable, and if that’s the case, some form of language could be said to exist for every and anything. Then language ceases to be merely representational and has its own underlying ineffability.

When the starlings go quiet and suddenly fly away in formation is that language?

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.” Is that what John 1:1 is trying to tell us ?

I’m sure better minds than mine have already figured this stuff out and that there is a way out of what seems like a strange loop, even if it means to accept that language and reality are one and our best bet is to work at using language. But then reality truly remains at least a partial fantasy of sorts, but even that is saying too much as it implies that we can make a distinction between the two.

“Here we stand and without speaking  Draw the water from the well  And stare beyond the plains  To where the mountains lie so still ” Jackson Browne

For A Dancer

One of the most beautiful, yet saddest songs about death that I have ever heard is Jackson Browne’s For a Dancer. Maybe you’ve heard it? In my teens, friends and I loved JB’s album, “Late for the Sky,” in which the studio version of For a Dancer can be found on.

My friend Regina, who recently passed away, loved to dance and sing. I can remember being in the upstairs of her house where in her parents bedroom (the biggest room of the house), we would dance around in a circle, practicing her choreographed interpretation of The Skater’s Waltz. Now this was certainly not my idea, and probably not even my idea of a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon when your 9 or 10, but Regina could be very persuasive and she always made me laugh.

Mt.Hood 8_2013 002Death follows us throughout our short lives, peripherally, if not front and center, when we are touched by its presence – through the loss of a loved one, or as well, through our own brushes with death. Its inevitability creates the tension that gives each life its uniqueness and the mystery of our individual being.

Why are we here, rather than not here? Why now, why not some other time? What is death, what precedes it, and what follows?

On the one hand, if nothing precedes it or follows it, no big deal, some people will tell you. But it’s not the impermanence of life that gives me pause as much as it the mystery of life in the first place.

Some of us don’t like to think much about death, and will tell you that it is morbid to do so. Some find it easier to come to conclusions about what happens to us – either convinced that there is life beyond death, or that we die and that’s it, gone as if we’ve never been here in the first place.

I have a deep respect for the limits of what we can know, and I can’t define with certainty the nature of what life or death is.

But I sense that somehow, whatever it is that beats our hearts, and sustains our physical presence, is not a product of our biology, but the source of what creates our physical form and sustains us.  I’m not a scientist, or anything close to that, but there are many invisible forms of energy around us that don’t seem to exist until they are translated by some sort of device. Think radio, micro, and other waves/particles that surround us without us in any way sensing them. Maybe we are translators of God’s uncreated source of all there is.

But death is also important as an operative metaphor for change in the life we live now, and so is worth attending to, in all the hundreds of ways death will visit us. Whether through actual physical death of loved ones, or the little deaths we experience through life’s changes. Death, while seeming to be an end, or a cessation, is also transition, and movement in which we are remade, revised and reborn. Live, love, laugh and cry and when someone asks you to dance, say yes.

“I don’t know what happens when people die.

Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try.

It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear

That I can’t sing

I can’t help listening.

And I can’t help feeling stupid

Standing around

Crying as they ease you down

‘Cause I know that you’d

Rather we were dancing”

Jackson Browne – For A Dancer