Monday, March 29, 2010

In the footsteps of James Hillman 11





Ascent and Descent

I have already alluded to the way we use language metaphorically.  When we seek to explain more absract terms we are forced to stretch our metaphors as far as we possibly can to cover the concept we seek to elucidate.  The concept of "ladder" has long been a metaphor in religion, spirituality and literature of all genres.  No wonder we loved the game of Snakes and Ladders when we were children.  I also alluded to Height Psychology and Depth Psychology (Viktor Frankl) and to Growing Up and Growing Down as Hillman so graphically puts it.  These thinkers are indeed sharp, and I find myself somewhat like Denis Diderot languishing in an "esprit d'escalier" when I have long left the company and an appropriate riposte has just come to mind.

The Tree of Life

No matter what culture one studies, no matter what mythology one explores one inevitably comes across the centrality and sacredness of the tree.  No wonder. After all a tree provided cover and shade, wood for implements and furniture and fruit for living.  Trees were and are central to our lives.  Indeeed, we do need to touch wood - in thanks, not in superstition.  According to The Encyclopædia Britannica, the tree of knowledge, connecting heaven and the underworld, and the tree of life, connecting all forms of creation, are both forms of the world tree or cosmic tree. Then some scholars argue that the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, portrayed in various religions and philosophies, are the same tree.  Then, think of the wonderful and wondrous film Avatar which I have reviewed already in these pages and how James Cameron used this metaphor or symbol of the tree so well and so beautifully.  Likewise, if you have seen the Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy or have read the books you will be well acquainted with the centrality of the tree motif.  Then again, if you are a poetry lover you will be well acquainted with the centrality of the symbolism of the tree in the poems of W. B. Yeats and with his poem "The Two Trees", viz., the trees of life and death respectively.

Standing things on their Head

Then we come to Hillman. To attempt a rather corny pun, our man wishes to engage in a "root and branch" reformation of psychology.  Let's listen to his rather powerful, if strange, words:

Organic images of growth follow the favourite symbol for human life, the tree, but I am turning the tree upside down.  My model of growth has its roots in heaven and imagines a gradual descent downward toward human affairs.  This is the tree of the Kabbalah in the Jewish and also Christian mystical tradition.  The Zohar, the main Kabbalist book, makes it clear that the descent is tough; the soul is reluctant to come down and get messed by the world. (The Soul's Code, p. 43)
Growing downwards then is a motif in Kabbalist, Jewish and indeed Greek mythology - that is, the Myth of Er, also already discussed in these posts.  In the Myth of Er, the soul selects the image we live with, this image it describes as "paradeigma" or "pattern."

Plato's text calls this image a paradeigma, or "pattern," as translators usually say.  So the "lot" is the image that is your inheritance, yout soul's portion in the world order, and your place on earth, all compacted into a pattern that has been selected by your soul before you got here - or better said, that is always and continually being selecvted by your soul because time does not enter the equations of myth.  ("Myth," said Sallust, the Roman philosopher of paganism, "never happened but always is.")  Since ancient psychology usually located the soul around or with the heart, your heart holds the image of your destiny and calls you to it.

Unpacking the image takes a lifetime.  It may be perceived all at once, but understood only slowly.  Thus the soul has an image of its fate, which time can show only as "future" (Ibid., p. 46.)


Above a photograph of a gas lamp in the foreground some trees of life - Phoenix Park, January 2010.

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