THE MYTHIC IMAGINATION - TALKS, TRAILS AND MYSTERIES
|THE GOLDEN CHAIN|
The tradition which forms the background. . . [to these weekends]. . . is hard to describe, because it has no name. We might tentatively call it, for convenience, the daimonic tradition. Although it appears in many disciplines, such as theology, philosophy, psychology, aesthetic theory and so on, it is not itself a discipline. It is not a body of knowledge or system of thought. Rather it is a way of knowing and thinking, a way of seeing the world, which poets and visionaries have always possessed but which even they cannot stand outside of or formulate. Thus one cannot be taught the tradition, for example as part of a university curriculum; one can only be initiated into it. Simply finding it out for oneself can be, like a quest, an act of self-initiation.
Like the eye which sees but which cannot see itself, the tradition only becomes a tradition when it has ceased to be congruent with the culture in which it is found and begins, as it were, to see itself. It ceases, in other words, to be an invisible perspective and becomes visible. In our culture it has become visible in writings which tend to be labelled “esoteric” or, worse, “occult.” Such writings are only just visible, large shadowy shapes lurking beneath the surface of the prevailing orthodoxy. Occasionally they break the surface, usually and most successfully in the form of poetry, which is allowed for, perceived as unthreatening by the prevailing orthodoxy, because poetry can be dismissed as “only” poetry, only imaginary, and can even, if it begins to disturb, be ignored.
In the twentieth century, two examples of the tradition’s breaking of the surface are the works of the poet W. B. Yeats and of the psychologist C. G. Jung. It is significant that both men were brought up in a rural environment where this traditional perspective was still active — where, in other words, daimonic reality was taken for granted. Both of them, for example, naturally accepted the reality of apparitions, visions and the supernatural, as country people always have. Their early work reflects this acceptance, but also the desire to square the supernatural with the sceptical, educated world they had entered. Thus Yeats re-worked Irish myths into long poems and wrote about fairies, while Jung entitled his first thesis “On the Psychology and Pathology of So-called Occult Phenomena.”
Throughout their lives Yeats and Jung sought out precedents for, and affinities with, their visionary — their daimonic — standpoints. Between them they uncovered and studied just about every major proponent of our tradition. This is not surprising, because it is a feature of the tradition that it threads together all who discover it, to form a series of historical links. The alchemists called it the Aurea Catena, the Golden Chain; and to grasp one link is to be connected to all the others. Having already joined the Golden Chain, so to speak, through his imaginative understanding of myth and folklore, Yeats found an immediate intellectual connection with it through the Romantic poets and especially William Blake, whose works he spent years editing. With Blake’s help he was able to identify further links, such as the Swedish visionary Emmanuel Swedenborg and the German mystic Jacob Boehme — daimonic islands in the rational, post-Cartesian sea. He discovered the Neoplatonists and the Hermetic philosophers who had flourished in the first centuries after Christ — and who enjoyed a new lease of life at the Renaissance when Marsilio Ficino translated them into Latin. Through Ficino, new branches of the tradition grew up in such philosophers as Pico della Mirandola and Giordano Bruno — even a new religion, a mixture of Hermeticism, alchemy and the Kabbalah (the Jewish esoteric tradition) which aspired to replace a Christianity riven by the conflict between Catholics and Protestants.
At the same time, Yeats maintained an interest in contemporary, popular manifestations of the tradition, no matter how seemingly shady or frivolous. He kept in touch with Spiritualism, for instance, and studied ritual magic with the Order of the Golden Dawn. Above all, he saw that the life of a culture or nation was only as good as its imaginative life; and its imaginative life was embodied in its myths. Contemptuous of the profane ideologies which stood for myths in the modern world, he fought to revitalize the soul of the Irish people through a revival of its authentic ancient myths in his poems and plays.
Jung similarly kept up a lifelong interest in his “occult phenomena,” even to the point of recognizing the unrecognizable — the “flying saucers” whose meaning he alone was able to grasp early on, thanks to his immersion in our tradition. He was less conscious than Yeats of the tradition as it manifested in poetry and drama, except for the second part of Goethe’s Faust which he proclaimed “a link in the Aurea Catena which has existed from the beginnings of philosophical alchemy and Gnosticism down to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Unpopular, ambiguous and dangerous, it is a voyage of discovery to the other pole of the world.” Instead, as the quotation suggests, Jung found it in the Gnostics and, supremely, in the alchemists, his own forebears, whose works were the historical counterpart of that myth-spinning imaginative life he had discovered empirically in the unconscious psyches of his patients.
Like myths themselves, alchemy is always going on in our unconscious lives. But it seems to rise to the surface and become an activity only at certain times, perhaps when a particular culture has reached a particular evolutionary stage. Rooted in ancient Egypt, it was practised in the Hellenistic culture which centred on Alexandria around the time of Christ. It was developed subsequently by the Arabs and, in seems independently by the Chinese. It entered Europe in the twelfth century and reached its zenith towards the end of the sixteenth century. As a daimonic process, it was not a single classifiable activity, as the alchemists themselves recognized when they variously referred to it as Our Philosophy, Our Art, Our Science. In addition to these components, alchemy embraced Christian elements as images of its processes. It was like a last attempt to hold together under the banner of Imagination the disparate elements of spirit and matter, soul and body, inner and outer, before they flew apart. Thus the outward transformation of chemicals and metals mirrored the inward transformation of the alchemist himself, each acting on and reflecting the other. The Philosopher’s Egg or Hermetic vessel in which his substances took on archetypal significance — Sun, Moon, King, Queen, Mercury, Sulphur, Fire, Water — was an image of soul itself in which fiery Imagination distils itself out of itself, forever separating, conjoining, mortifying, subliming and multiplying.
I have elsewhere suggested that the extraordinary and sudden efflorescence of imaginative activity at the turn of the seventeenth century, not only as poetry and drama, but also as the beginning of modern science, had been incubated in the secret vessels of the alchemists, which cracked open at that moment, as it were, to release their myth-laden gases into the mainstream of imaginative life. Just as alchemy had been conceived as an elemental drama, a “chemical theatre,” so, now, the finest dramas were rich in alchemical imagery (Shakespeare’s King Lear, for example, and The Tempest).
If alchemy had striven to hold together a unified, daimonic view of the world in which soul mediated, even while it distinguished, between spirit and matter, so too did Shakespearean drama. At least, this is the view held by Ted Hughes who, in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, identifies the myth (or, rather, the two myths) which provide the underlying dynamism of all Shakespeare’s major plays. Central to these myths is the rejection of soul by the rational ego, and its dire consequences. The plays are like a series of variants on these myths, striving to express and thereby contain this crisis in the collective Imagination of Western culture. It was as if Shakespeare foresaw the dangers inherent in the triumph of the rational ego over soul, the disaster that would result in the denial of his own brand of mythopoeic Imagination. Hughes even argues, correctly, that the plays have a shamanic function: they are like the otherworld journeys the shaman takes on behalf of the tribe in order to retrieve its lost soul and so heal the rift between soul and ego.
That Shakespeare’s attempt at healing was unsuccessful — despite the radiant, reconciling imagery of The Tempest — the history of modern Western culture since that watershed moment has amply demonstrated. However, no matter how beleagured the tradition becomes, it can never die out because daimonic reality needs no tradition to stay alive. It is always, and constantly, alive and able to re-imagine and renew itself in every generation, quite apart from any tradition, through spontaneous apparitions, visions and otherworld journeys.
Patrick Harpur. Appendix from Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld,
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