I’ve been enjoying the recording of a discussion at a conference with James Hillman and Michael Meade on literal, psychological, and mythological modes of understanding.
Hillman, a former director of the Jung Institute in Switzerland, has been the most prolific and influential of post-Jungian thinkers. He spent his life as champion of psyche, soul, and imagination in a world that has too few such champions. Hillman took particular aim at literalism, which he called “an idol that forgets it is an image and believes itself a God, taking itself metaphysically, seriously, damned to fulfill its task of coagulating the many into singleness of meaning which we call facts, data, problems, realities.” (Revisioning Psychology).
When I think of literalism, I recall the last lines of a poem a brilliant young poet I knew wrote about his high school principal:
His triple-breasted chin, arranged in folds upon his chest,
He blunts my life with a technicality.
Hillman also takes aim at much psychological thinking in books like The Soul’s Code. In this conference, he points to the 20th c. understanding that “The Gods now live in the psyche,” as a core statement of one of our greatest collective problems: the world and nature have lost their connection to the divine, and as such, are ripe for exploitation by greedy men who have traded their souls for profit. If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all,” Ronald Reagan famously said when he was California’s governor.
Michael Meade noted that one of the hallmarks of myth is a sense of abundance. The current miasma of scarcity thinking – that there isn’t enough to go around, so you better get yours while you can – is a clear indication, if we need it, that we have no myth, no shared stories of who we are as a people.
I have come to think that this may be the fundamental problem we have as a nation and culture right now. None of the four functions of myth Joseph Campbell identified are functioning, but the greatest loss, in the public sphere, is the Sociological Function, the stories, the moral order, the customs, laws, and ethics that tell a people, a tribe, a nation, who they are. Without this, our political news, speeches, bills, analysis, and social media chatter are symptoms and not solutions. A lot of sound and fury…
I am guilty of adding to that noise, which now seems like a meaningless thing to do at best. Actions are something else. It is necessary to act as conscience demands – write letters, sign petitions, march, protest, contribute, vote, but even so, these are triage measures, which may help stop the bleeding, but can miss the underlying cause of the wounds.
Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind that created them.” (or words to that effect – there is no agreement on the exact quote.)
“We are crying for a vision that all living things can share,” sang Kate Wolf in Brother Warrior.
For most of this year, I’ve been contemplating a change to this blog – something like a new look, and perhaps going premium to get rid of the ads. Or dusting off the first WordPress domain name I registered but, for various reasons, never used
I want to change the look or format to underscore my desire to change the content. If this is worth continuing, it will be to celebrate, explore, discover those people who are crying for visions, and striving to build, imagine, dream new models of how to live in this world. Unless we are politicians, we pretty much know that our existing models have long been obsolete.
This is nothing new, and there aren’t going to be any quick fixes. More than 150 years ago, Matthew Arnold wrote of “Wandering between two worlds, one dead the other powerless to be born.” But as we wait and watch it seems right to listen to hopeful voices.
Poetry is always a good place to visit, for the literalist never goes there. This is “Milkweed,” by James Wright, a poem that Hillman shared at the conference:
While I stood here, in the open, lost in myself,
I must have looked a long time
Down the corn rows, beyond grass,
The small house,
White walls, animals lumbering toward the barn.
I look down now. It is all changed.
Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for
Was a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyes
Loving me in secret.
It is here. At a touch of my hand,
The air fills with delicate creatures
From the other world.
I love this because what has been lost is actually here, at the touch of a hand, if we can but find the vision to see it!