Reading James Hillman’s Revisioning Psychology, one comes away both enlightened and puzzled; enlightened because each page offers a laser-like insight into contemporary culture, and puzzled because the complexity of our enmeshment in our own blind sabotage offers scant light at the end of the dark tunnel.
Broadening and deepening the potential of psychology, from therapeutic interventions into a psychology of “soul” and “soul making,” Hillman posits that soul is a “perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint toward things rather than a thing itself. This perspective is reflective; it mediates events and makes differences between ourselves and everything that happens. Between us and events, between the does and the deed, there is a reflective moment—and soul-making means differentiating this middle ground.” (p.xvi)
Discerning the profound difference between the contemporary place of today’s words: (“Of course we live in a world of slogan, jargon, and press releases, approximating the ‘Newspeak’ of Orwell’s 1984,” and “Words like angels, are powers which have invisible power over us” (p.9), Hillman actually names words as “angels” and as “persons” “transcend(ing) their nominalistic* definitions and contexts and evoke(s) in our souls a universal resonance….Words like angels, are powers which have invisible power over us. They are personal presences which have whole mythologies: genders, genealogies…histories and vogues: and their own guarding, blaspheming, creating and annihilating effects. For words are persons.” (ibid)
Stretching for a new perspective on a dominant “Christian” cultural image, for example, based on the Easter story of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Hillman shines a LED on the notion of depression. He writes:
Because Christ resurrects, moments of despair and desertion cannot be valid in themselves. Our one model insists on light at the end of the tunnel, one program that moves from Thursday evening to Sunday and the rising of a whole new day better by far than before. Not only will therapy more or less consciously imitate this program (in ways ranging from hopeful positive counselling to electroshock), but the individual’s consciousness is already allegorized by the Christian myth and so he knows that depression is and experiences it according to form. It must be necessary (for it appears in the crucifixion), and it must be suffering; but staying
depressed must be negative, since in the Christian allegory Friday is never valid per se, for Sunday—as an integral part of the myth—is pre-existent in Friday from the start. The counterpart of every crucifixion fantasy is a resurrection fantasy. Our stance toward depression is a priori a manic defense against it.
Even our notion of consciousness itself serves as an antidepressant: to be conscious is to be awake alive, attentive, in a state of activated cortical functioning. Drawn to extremes, consciousness and depression have come to exclude each other, and psychological depression has replaced theological hell….
Depression is still the Great Enemy. More personal energy is expended in manic defenses against, diversions from and denials of it than goes into other supposed psychopathological threats to society: Psychopathic criminality, schizoid breakdown, addictions. As long as we are caught is cycles of hoping against despair, each productive of the other, as long as our actions in regard to depression are resurrective, implying that being down and staying down is sin, we remain Christian in psychology.
Yet through depression we enter depths and in depths find soul. Depression is essential to the tragic sense of life. It moistens the dry soul, and dries the wet. It brings refuge, limitation, focus, gravity, weight and humble powerlessness. It reminds of death. The true revolution begins in the individual who can be true to his or her depression. Neither jerking oneself out of it, caught in cycles of hope and despair, nor suffering it through gill it turns, nor theologizing it—but discovering the consciousness and depths it wants. So begins the revolution in behalf of soul. P 98-99)
Neither a denigration of Christian theology, nor an anthem for traditional psychology, this vision of the intimate, integral and unavoidable relationship between cultural myths/archetypes and the human psyche needs some unpacking.
Consciousness of the implications of this Easter/Death/Resurrection dynamic on our visceral, unconscious and often ignored/denied/avoided psychological entrapment can potentially offer both a new and freeing psychological vision, and even a more profound appreciation for the penetration of each of the multiple myths/archetypes/fantasies/ with which we walk, eat, breathe, sleep and dream.
First, we need not remain trapped in our limited vision of depression as sin. Also, we need not jump to distracting activities in order to curtail the depression that comes often without warning, without preparation, without constraint and without easily accessible support. Depression, seen as “angel” or as “person” or as having a voice to which it begs us to attend, will, if we accept Hillman’s perspective, offer gifts from its depths that will only enrich our sense of our self, our capacity to see and experience both our self and our world in new and authentic ways.
Seeing our psychic life in more imaginative scenes, replete with fantasy, angels, visions, dreams and n an esternal archetypes can enable us to open to “self-talk” that integrates our conscious “voice” into conversations with these figures, these angels, these characters silently waiting for us to invite them into our “world.” Similarly, our swimming in the waters of the cultural archetypes that swim in those same bays, eddies, inlets, rivers, isthmuses and whirlpools and permitting their “presence” to become part of our consciousness not only enriches our psychic breast-stroke, back-stroke, crawl and even our treading water, not merely increasing the strength of those skills, but selecting to the most appropriate ‘stroke’ given the fullness of the psychic environment and our appreciation of its complexities, really our own complexities.
In the Christian tradition, the “dark night of the soul” has captured the attention of mystic spiritual seekers and has provided narratives that inspire others, while also perhaps terrifying some.
Eckhart Tolle writes about the dark night of the soul:
It is a term used to describe what cone could calla a collapse of a perceived meaning in life…an eruption into your life or a deep sense of meaninglessness. The inner state in some cases is very close to what is conventionally called depression. Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything. Sometimes it’s triggered by some external event, some disaster perhaps, on an external level. The death of someone close to you could trigger it, especially premature death, for example if your child dies. Or you had built up your life, and given it meaning, --and the meaning that you had given your life, your activities, your achievement, where you are going, what is considered important, and the meaning that you had given your life for some reason collapses. (Eckhart Tolle website)
Our tendency to pathologize this “darkness” (this deep depression) as either or both a sin or an illness, based on the traditional religious and/or medical model respectively, sabotages our attempt to deal with our own reality, our own truth. In order to appear “well” or “not evil”….or also to avoid being ostracized, alienated, or declared “unfit” for acceptance in employment, social association, neighbourhood, or even amateur athletic teams, too many of us rush into a public “face” of “being OK”….and thereby cover our depression, both to ourselves and to others we “don’t want to worry”.
We cannot afford to avoid, deny, disdain or trash Hillman’s cultural revisioning of our conventional perceptions of our psychic realities. And, obviously, it will take each of us, including all of our thought leaders, our shamans, our pedagogues and our clergy (especially) to “unbind” the constrictions of many of the reductions of conventional psychology and society if we are to enter into an enriched culture of poetic imagination.
As Red Green reminds us, “We’re all in this together, and we’re pulling for you!”
*nominalism: the doctrine that universals or general ideas are mere names without any corresponding reality, and that only particular objects exist; properties, numbers, and sets are thought of as merely features of the way of considering the things that exist (Dictionary)