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The Archetypal Imagination

by James Hollis

We are never closer to the divine than when we imagine. This linkage with the infinite is the intent of the great mythologies & religions, the healing & creative arts, & the dreams we dream every night.


Humankind has developed resources to intimate the unfathomable, to help us reach for the hem of gods and goddesses, and to stand in the presence of infinite values. We call these resources metaphor (something that will “carry over” from one thing to another) and symbol (something that will “project toward” convergence). With metaphor and symbol we are provisionally able to approximate, to apprehend, to appreciate that which lies beyond our powers to understand or to control. Unfortunately our species is prone to fall in love with its own creations and reify them, converting them from intimations to concepts. By encapsulating the mystery, we lose it entirely. This is the terrible temptation of literalist fundamentalisms of all kinds. When the temptation triumphs, the images that arise out of primal experience, phenomenological in character, are subordinated to the needs of consciousness and thus become artefacts of ego rather than intimations of eternity.

Jung’s concept of the archetype is an eminently useful tool for us to employ in service of meaning while still respecting the ambiguous character of the cosmos. He speaks of the archetype as a formative process, more properly understood as a verb than a noun. The psyche has an apparent desire to render a raw flux of atoms intelligible and meaningful by sorting them into patterns. These patterns themselves form patterns, that is, archetypes create primal forms which are then filled with the contents unique to a particular culture, a particular artist, or a particular dreamer.

Indeed it is the human capacity for symbol making that differentiates us from all other natural species and makes our spirituality possible. It is our imaginal capacity (our ability to form images which carry energy) that constructs the requisite bridges to those infinite worlds which otherwise lie beyond our rational and emotional capacities. Without the archetypal imagination, we would have neither culture nor spirituality, and our condition would never have transcended brutish rutting in the dust en route to becoming dust itself.

For William Blake and the Romantics, imagination is our highest faculty, not our reason, which is delimited by its own structures. It is the archetypal imagination which through the agency of symbol and metaphor and in its constitutive power of imaging, not only creates the world and renders it meaningful but may also be a paradigm of the work of divinity. As Blake wrote: “The Eternal Body of Man is the Imagination…In Eternity, All is Vision.”

The historian of religion Huston Smith once asked me this question: Does the archetype originate in the human psyche alone or does it have a function transcendent to individual experience? While we cannot know the answer to that question definitively, I surmise that the archetypal function (remember archetype as verb) does both. It is the means by which the individual brings pattern and process to chaos, and it is the means by which the individual participates in those energies of the cosmos of which we are a part. The archetypal imagination is, as Wordsworth defined it in “Tintern Abbey”,

a motion and a spirit, that impels
all thinking things, all objects of all thought,
and rolls through all things.

And our intuition of this power fits what he described as

a sense sublime
of something far more deeply interfused,
whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.

Perhaps life is meaningless, but we are meaning-seeking creatures who are driven to understand it. Failing that, we attempt to form some meaningful relationship to life. We learn from archetypal psychology, from the core of religious experiences, from quantum physics, and from the artist’s eye that all is energy. Matter is a dynamic, temporary arrangement of energy. Apparently, a religious symbol or a prayer, a work of art, or an expressive practice can so act on our psyche as to move energy when it has been blocked, deadened or split off.

The splitting of matter and spirit, which were last held together by the medieval alchemists, must now be knit together, and thoughtful theologians, imaginative physicists, and pragmatic physicians know that. The split between religion and science has been bigoted on both sides, ignorant, and has blocked the development of new healing modalities. The one-sidedness of organizing metaphors of East and West led one to pre-eminence in spirituality at the diminishment of the study of nature, and the other to prominence in the manipulation of the tangible world at the cost of soul. A dematerialized spirituality leads to the neglect of legitimate social issues, and the de-souling of nature leads to a bland, banal and bankrupt superficiality.

But what is common to both sides of these dichotomies is nor ideology but energy. All of them are energy systems. To be more specific, all of them are systematized images of energy. It does not matter whether the image is religious in character, purporting to embody the encounter with a transcendent reality, or material in character, purporting to describe the mystery of nature in incarnational flux. Each image presents itself to consciousness through what the philosopher Hans Vaihinger called a “useful fiction”, an image whose purpose is to point beyond itself to the mystery. As the mystery is by definition that which we cannot know, lest it no longer be the Mystery, our images are tools, not ends in themselves.

Apparently, what is real and omnipresent is energy; what allows us to stand in relationship to that mystery is image; and what generates the bridge is an autonomous part of our own nature, the archetypal imagination. We are never more profoundly human than when we express our yearning, nor closer to the divine than when we imagine. This linkage with the infinite has of course been the intent of the great mythologies and religions, the healing creative and expressive arts, and the dreams we dream every night.

Consciousness is transformed by the encounter with mystery as invested in images theretofore foreign to it. In the world of contemporary deconstructionism, we believe that all knowledge is interpretation and all interpretation is subjective, prejudiced by unconscious determinants such as class, gender and Zeitgeist, and that no interpretation is final or authoritative.

Many years ago, long before I was a psychotherapist, I played a role in the dream of a friend who was going through a terrible life crisis, not the least of which included the death of his child. In the dream I had placed a strip of masking tape on the end of his nose. He knew that I had not done this bizarre act as a joke or to make light of his Jobean dilemma. When we talked over the dream and focused on what Jung called the “obscure symbol”, I spontaneously said, “Tom, what you are looking for is as near as the end of your nose.” He had an immediate reaction—an enlightenment—because his course was clear, albeit painful. He knew what he had to do.

Despite what we know to be the infinity of our yearning and the limits of our powers, we have been provided a means of communication with the mysteries. This power is as near as the end of one’s nose. As Blake once expressed it:

I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball:
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,
Built in Jerusalem’s wall.

◊ This is an extract from the Introduction to James Hollis' book  The Archetypal Imagination. Dr Hollis is a senior Jungian training analyst & the author of many books on analytical psychology. Publ. here 26.5.2017.

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