A Dilettante Among Symbols

Heinrich Zimmer (1890-1943), was a scholar of eastern art and folklore, a friend of Carl Jung, a mentor to Joseph Campbell, and the author of a classic book on the psychological interpretation of folktales.  In The King and the Corpse, 1948, Zimmer included an introduction he called “A Dilettante Among Symbols,” a name he chose to sum up his approach.  Dilettante, from the Italian verb, dilettare, means “one who takes delight in something.”  Zimmer explained that his book was for “those who take delight in symbols, like conversing with them, and enjoy living with them continually in mind.”

I discussed The King and the Corpse on this blog in December, 2011 (http://wp.me/pYql4-1vt), but I focused then on the title story rather than Zimmer’s methods of interpretation.  That is what I want to consider here.

Zimmer analyzed stories from the perspective of psychology without ever falling into psychobabble.  Jung’s theories inform his work, but knowledge of those theories is never required to understand him.  Readers of Joseph Campbell will recognize the similarity in both men’s approach, and there’s good reason for this.

In 1938, the nazi’s dismissed Zimmer from the University of Heidelberg.  He migrated to England and taught at Oxford until 1940 when he moved to New York and found a teaching position at Columbia.  Joseph Campbell attended his lectures and the two became close friends.  After Zimmer died in 1943 of pneumonia, Campbell spent the next 12 years compiling Zimmer’s lecture notes into four books, including The King and the Corpse, which Bollingen Press published in 1948.

Heinrich Zimmer, 1933 (public domain)

The King and the Corpse features Zimmer’s discussion of stories from India, from the middle-east, from Ireland, Wales, and England.  Whether in Baghdad, Camelot, or an Indian cremation ground, his tone is one of engaged curiosity.  He insisted that all attempts to systematize the living reality of symbols are doomed: “Whenever we refuse to be knocked of our feet…by some telling new conception precipitated from the depths of our imagination by the impact of an ageless symbol, we are cheating ourselves of the fruit of an encounter with the wisdom of the millenniums…the boon of converse with the gods is denied us.”

I discovered Heinrich Zimmer during my freshman year in college.  The King and the Corpse introduced me to a number of marvelous stories, and gave me a way of approaching them, with head and heart, that I rely on to the present day.

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