Jung, Active Imagination and the Bicameral Mind December 18, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite, Contemporary , trackback
The demography of this blog is unusual: it is about 30% history buffs, 30% anomalists/Forteans and 40% hybrid types. Beachcombing belongs very much to the first of these three and he certainly did not plan, when he started, a year and a half ago, to write for anyone but his dry-as-dust friends. He is glad, though, that things turned out as they did and he enjoys his email post bag and the wide swathe of views found there.
Slowly, however, some of these emails have begun to have an impact on the questions that Beach asks himself. In the good old days Beachcombing was interested in the cultural impact of fairy belief in fringe societies: and, of course, for fairies here we could write, instead, mermaids, exotic felines in the English countryside, UFOs, ghosts, armies in the sky and pretty much any other ‘curiosity’. Now, sometimes, late at night, he finds himself, instead, wondering what these men and women actually see.
Given his plodding rationalist ways Beachcombing’s ‘instinct’ (a dangerous word in this context) would be that it is all in the head. And he came across some justification for this in an interesting essay by Colin Wilson, Jung and the Active Imagination. The active imagination is hardly a key Jungian concept – Beach is not clear of the extent to which CW has created it himself from the mosaic of Jung’s work – but he found this passage strangely haunting.
‘In his Tavistock Lectures of 1935 (Collected Works, Vol. 18) Jung gives an example of how one of his patients finally achieved active imagination ‘from cold’, so to speak. He was a young artist who seemed to find it practically impossible to understand what Jung meant by active imagination [Beach has similar problems]. ‘This man’s brain was always working for itself’.; that is to say, his artistic ego would not get out of the driving seat. But each time the artist came to see Jung, he waited at a small station, and looked at a poster advertising Mürren, in the Bernese Alps; it had a waterfall, a green meadow and a hill with cows. He decided to try ‘fantasising’ about the poster. He stared at it and imagined he was in the meadow, then that he was walking up the hill. Perhaps he was in a particularly relaxed mood that day, or perhaps his artistic imagination now came to his aid instead of obstructing him. (We can imagine his right brain saying ‘So that’s what you wanted!’ Why didn’t you say so?’) A waking dream took over. He found himself walking along a footpath on the other side of the hill, round a ravine and a large rock, and onto a little chapel. As he looked at the face of the Virgin on the altar, something with pointed ears vanished behind the altar. He thought ‘That’s all nonsense’ and the fantasy was gone. He was struck by the important thought: perhaps that was not fantasy – perhaps it was really there. Now presumably on the train, he closed his eyes and conjured up the scene again. Again he entered the chapel, and again the thing with pointed ears jumped behind the altar. This was enough to convince him that what he had scene was not mere fantasy, but a genuine glimpse of an objective reality inside his own head, ‘access to inner worlds. This, says Jung, was the beginning of a successful development of active imagination.
Here is a very fine description of a little examined capacity that is perhaps in most of us. Is it possible that people who see curiosities allow their imagination to take over and that their imagination (objective or not) superimposes itself on the world?
Beach has in his life had two ‘curious’ experiences involving aural hallucinations (or at least that is what he like to think they were!): where the active imagination broke through. Both came in a period of relaxation or collapse after great stress.
Certainly, in the many accounts he has read over the years, he has also been struck by the frequency with which ‘curiosities’ are seen while individuals relax part of their mind in repetitive tasks: picking blackberries (for fairies) or driving (for abcs). There is also a tendency for the young rather than adults to see these things.
While reflecting on this Beach thought of Jayne’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. And, suitably enough – let’s call it synchronicity as we are talking Jung, Wilson mentions Jayne on the next page: before we know it we’ll be finding dead kingfishers in the garden!
Jayne, for those who haven’t come across him, argued that our society has been taken over by the left side of the brain that trains out an ability open to our ancestors: that of externalising stresses within into visions without. For example, according to Jayne, when an ancient Greek saw a god, say Hermes, what he or she were actually doing was projecting a articulation of their own problems. Are ‘curiosities’ just then a residual ability that has been bred or trained out of most of us, the psychological equivalent of the tail bone say?
Does this mean then too that curiosities have no reality external to us? Beach recently asked one of Jayne’s old friends – Jayne himself is sadly now dead – and got an unexpected response. The historian in question quoted a Christian mystic saying that as we are in God’s image we are not just the created but also creators. What comes out of us, in other words, comes out of the fabric of God/universe. Presumably this could be restated in Islamic or pantheistic or, for that matter, atheist terms: in some ways it comes close to CW’s ‘objective reality’.
Apologies for a long and wandering post about an area where Beach is very far from being expert, but where he would like to learn more.
Are there any other worthwhile theories out there? (rhetorical question!) : drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
18 Dec 2011: First, Southern Man writes to defend Colin Wilson: ‘Beach, active imagination is so well established as a Jungian idea that it has its own Wikipedia page!’ Then Phil P: ‘A couple of years ago Jung’s legendary, but seen by only a very few, Liber Novus was finally published. You might be interested in it. It is a folio and a bit pricy, but I thought it worth buying and have one’. The LN it transpires is Jung’s artwork from his ‘mad’ years and his own personal acts of active imagination. Still on Jung Harold Arrow in the Eye: ‘That Jungian Joseph Campbell wrote about schizophrenics going on their own personal hero quests created by their visions and madness. This would be another example of active imagination breaking through into the real world. James writes in with this comment: ‘Some sympathy with what you write but let me present two big and obvious problems: first, how do you explain multiple sightings (five children see a fairy) and, second, how do you explain different people seeing the same thing at the same place (a ghost in that room).’ Thanks Southern Man, James, Phil P and Harold!
21 Dec 2011: Judith M writes in with some interesting considerations and experiences, Beachcombing, and this is the highest compliment, is as confused as ever: ‘I am compelled to post some musings about active imagination: a) What is the demarkation line in terms of a person’s schizophrenic status or “normalcy”, regarding visions, “hallucinations”, or in fact, “active imagination”? b) Are not artists — particularly “visionary” artists (say, Redon) slightly schizoid, however “normal” folk define it? c) And about children’s capacity to see the “unreal” — is it not that children’s minds have yet to be encapsulated and channeled by School, into little left-brain thinkers and thus still have an intact, undamaged, innate and unfortunately (I suppose) vestigial human capacity to fully experience active imagination? A capacity that has been relegated to the useless functions file and hence is now quite dormant. and, on a personal note or two: I’m an artist and see my visions/images very clearly before I begin getting them onto canvas/paper, etc., (you guessed it — I do not do still lives or lone pines by the seaside en plein air), and bring them into as “real” a form as I’m able to. They are somewhat beyond the Pale, “reality”-wise! But I’m wondering, in a completely non-confrontational way and in uncritical self-examination, whether I am in the “schizophrenic” camp? Admittedly there are other non-worldly ways in which I don’t conform (baaaad with numbers, money, keeping up w/the stock market — also, I lack the gene for housekeeping) but no one other than my mother has accused me of being completely non-functional. No doubt I’m quite average but with an odd extra spyglass attached to my inner eye, or a broken sieve in the Great Corpus Callosum Divide. Finally, as a child, two friends and my brother and I played in an meadow in Vermont which we called “Invisible Meadow”; we truly believed that we saw many phenomena out of the scope of adults — we had a section called the “Dryad’s Dancing Plain” and “Darkest Brook” and so forth. That was appallingly long ago but still, I wonder……and as a adult myself I have experienced unusual occurrences that others might call “active imagination”. While not wishing to take your time up with long-winded recountings, there have been times when these peculiarities, for lack of a better term, have come to my aid in times of danger. Perhaps they were urgent projections from my personal unconscious, brought up as warnings to my gormless conscious.’ Thanks Judith!