James Hillman is one of those authors I go to like a tonic. The way in which he conceptualizes the mythological and its relationship to the psychical opens up my thinking. His archetypal psychology is a definite improvement on Jung’s work, especially when he speaks to the diversity of mythic styles and the importance of that diversity for illuminating and guiding our spiritual work.
Like Jung, though, he always leave me a little dissatisfied; the atmosphere seems too rarefied. He liberates the dream from too-tight interpretation, but he hasn’t yet returned it to life. Much of that has to do with his eagerness to defend the dream, the psyche, from the ego-driven concerns that would demand it have clear purpose.
That attitude fosters a receptiveness toward other spiritual forces, other centers of value. However, in asserting so adamantly its distinctiveness from the ego, Hillman severs ego experience from it. With that, he also severs spiritual experience from the experience of our daily life. So, while he allows us to see the voice of a spirit in the visage of a friend in our dream, he makes it difficult to relate that voice to the rest of our life. Or to see the spirit in the waking world.
That approach does some injustice to his source material from which he draws his comparisons. Like Jung, he grossly over-psychologizes and over-spiritualizes premodern alchemy, underestates how essential practical operations were to its practitioners. The observations made during chemical operations sit at the base of the symbols to which Hillman and Jung give spiritual meaning. To the extent that premodern alchemists derived spiritual import from them, the spiritual import could not be severed from their practical aims and their modification in the face of experimental results.
There is something here, too, about the way in which spiritual alchemy tends to select a narrow set of alchemical manuscripts and use them as the basis for their image of the psyche, another expression of the narrowing found around the development of planetary associations.
Those alchemical processes had practical outputs that people in positions of power hoped to exploit for practical gain. Gold, yes, was the most commonly hoped for result, but a good alchemist was a chemical craftsman who produced a range of products, like medicines. While they likely sought spiritual inspiration, they paid attention to reliable formulas.
This said, there is something efficacious in the results…ah, this is one of the places where the cyborg synchs come in. What we find in Jung and Hillman is something more interesting that they might imagine. We are not looking at a novel metaphor for a universal human process, but a novel means of developing human being.
Psyche-alchemy is the person subjected to the chemical, to the person reconceived as something that can be experienced as a permeable and transformable material. The person reconceived through the subtleties unfolding within the empirical chemical domain. Experience with the material world provides us with forms that we can extract and redeploy in spiritual experience.
Forms of life give birth to forms of experience, and it is into these forms of experience that spirit flows. Alchemy does not return us to humanism, but quite the opposite points us toward one of our first modern forms of cyborg existence. The furnace remakes the human. We make the furnace then the furnace remakes us.
There are two historical moments. First, the practical development in the chemical sciences which yield a molecular and atomic complexity that makes the old alchemical models too simplistic. That may be firmly in place by the end of the 18th century. Second, there is the revivification of the alchemical models for the sake of understanding the human psyche, following the inflection point at which industrial operations swallow up people. Charlie Chaplin’s <i>Modern Times</i> as much a commentary on the process as Jung’s alchemical turn. The turn begins with the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
The issue of agency reappears here. Hillman’s separation of ego and dream bearing witness to the alienation of the person in the machine…which is also the neutralization of pushing back against the machine. Person becomes product.
Hmm. There are lots of ways that happens along the whole length of industrial capitalism. Many forms.
Notebooked to make clear that there is more to think about before much useful can be said. The hooks aren’t quite affixed here and the tent threatens to blow away with the wind.