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Reply To: Don’t Look Up: The Doomsday Dilettante,” with mythologist Norland Téllez”

Robert Juliano

    In this discussion of image, myth, and the admonition to “stick to the image,” I think we are very much in danger of losing our way here. Let us begin with the notion and experience of the “image.” The image is not of our own creation, not something contrived, not even something that connects individual pieces which may themselves be images. Images come from (if that is a reasonable notion) the unknown – their emergence is a deep and profound mystery. We can experience them, we can recognize them, we can be gripped by them, we can be entirely overpowered by them, but we know neither their true nature nor their true origin (if those are knowable things). Images emerge whole and are of infinite complexity, the revealing of which would thus entail an infinite process. They are of infinite dimension, infinite self-similarity, holographic being a modern ways of speaking of them. And if meaning is to be ascribed to them, their meanings are infinite. All of this is why Jung and others can say that the image has everything it needs within itself.

    I expand on the image in this way because we are dealing with the advice to “stick to the image,” advice that, as I mentioned earlier, long predates us. Crucially, this advice is specific to the image and is justified because of the properties we see the image as possessing. Sticking to the image makes a lot of sense when we carefully consider what the image is. However, and this is critical, this movie is not an image! It may contain images, connected in some way, but it itself is not an image. This movie is largely contrived, its development being a product of great deliberation and planning, the choice of images and symbols done deliberately with due reflection. The movie, then, is not infinitely self-similar – not of infinite complexity and depth of meaning. When this movie undergoes analysis and reflection, it quickly decomposes into pieces instead of maintaining its wholeness. Crucially, the movie does NOT have everything it needs within itself, and this is part of the reason why both internal and external reflections are necessary and also why immense caution must be taken when considering the film. Sticking to the image is not particularly beneficial to such a contrivance. Sticking to the image with such contrivances often results merely in bringing in our own beliefs and ideas instead of revealing what is contained within the contrivance.

    Now, when we see images in such a contrivance, their experience and, if one employs this process, their interpretation are done very differently than if they had emerged in a true image (e.g., a dream, vision, etc.). For their meaning in the movie is largely dependent on the consciousness of the movie’s creators. In the movie, they often serve as signs, not symbols. So when we see what we think are Christian images in the movie, their meaning would need to be informed by the particular perspectives and specific choices made by the movie’s creators, something which would require quite a bit of research to reveal if we are not to rely on mere guesswork. On the other hand, were we to describe our own (subjective) experiences of the movie, we would have to include our own understanding of the Christian myth. Crucially, then, we need to recognize the fundamental distinction between finding Christian images in the movie and bringing our own interpretation to those images based upon our understanding of the Christian myth. This is part of the reason great care must be taken here.

    Now, let us consider the figure of Christ and the image of the Last Supper and assume our interest is in communicating our personal experience of the film rather than what the film means (again, were we interested in the latter, we would need to do research on what the movie’s creators intended by using those images). Here, it is possible that we are bringing our own interpretation of the Christian myth to bear. It may also be the case that we are more reflective and consider different imaginings of the Christ figure (beyond our own beliefs), imaginings which would likely lead to different interpretations of the image of the Last Supper. All of these, then, could be used in describing one’s own experiences of the film. Crucially, one’s experience of the film varies depending on the imaginings of its images. In other words, I can imagine the images in one way and note my experience of the film, and then imagine the images in a different way and note my resulting experiences of the film with those changes. This was precisely why I offered a different imagining of the Christ figure than the one presented in this thread, namely the imagining of the ancient Gnostics. Such an imagining, of course, is not meant to assert anything about truth or correctness. However, it is clear that one experiences the film in very different ways depending on how one imagines the images.

    Now, let me address the issue of “psychologistic reduction of Christ as a symbol of a personal individuation.” Fortunately, this was not done in this thread. Crucially, there is a fundamental distinction between the historical figure of Christ and how Christ was experienced over the millennia. When we consider, as the ancient Gnostics had, Christ as an example of living an authentic life, we are really saying absolutely nothing about Christ himself. Instead, we are speaking of a particular experience of Christ, based on a specific reflections on those experiences. Or we are speaking of a particular imagining of Christ, again something exceedingly different from Christ himself.

    I should emphasize here that it was the ancient Gnostics who saw the life of Christ and its purpose as an example of an authentic life, a view that was shared by others over the two millennia that separates modern times from the existence of Gnosticism in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. Just because modern depth psychology sees this as a valid experience of Christ does not mean that by doing so it has thereby psychologized Christ. And there is a fundamental distinction between holding the process of individuation as a parallel to Christ’s life and psychologically reducing Christ as a symbol of personal individuation. Depth psychology has often been unfairly criticized for reducing God to (mere) psychological concepts. This is largely because there is a failure to read the original materials carefully with reflection, materials which emphasize explicitly and/or implicitly that depth psychology can only speak to the experience of that which has been called God and cannot speak about the Unknowable (God) itself.

    I should also say that Christ (and Buddha) as example were specifically discussed in Jung’s own confrontation with the unconscious. It is part of Philemon’s Sermons in 1916 and is part of further discussions among Philemon, the Emissary (Jung’s Soul), and Jung after those Sermons. All of this is experienced directly and is expressed in the Black Books in a language which is not of an academic or psychological character. This is before the relevant psychological concepts had been developed after years of reflection and practice. The subsequent characterization as Christ being the symbol of the Self and an example of individuation came much later and represents a scholarly expression of an originally conscious/unconscious dialogue held primarily during the years 1916-1922. Thus, before this characterization of Christ in depth psychology was done, it had already taken form in the initial centuries after Christ and had, in modern times, taken form in the dialogical relationship Jung had established with the unconscious. And, again, even where depth psychology discussed Christ and individuation, we are talking about a parallel – a modern way of understanding Christ’s life and the experience of Christ. We are in no way reducing Christ’s life to mere psychological concepts.

    I would also like to address the exceedingly odd notion of “privatization of the collective power of myth for one’s own ego-centric desires.” This statement, it seems to me, is entirely void of actual experience. For, there are examples of where one has followed a collective myth and succeeded in the goal they set out to achieve. Milarepa is an example of one who participated in a collective myth and successfully achieved enlightenment. Sri Ramakrishna is another example of one who decided to, after he had achieved his own spiritual enlightenment, follow the collective myth of Christ. In the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, it is said there that Ramakrishna experimented and followed Christ’s life and had experienced what Christ had achieved. This certainly was not done for his own egocentric desire, but instead confirmed to him that Christianity was a valid spiritual path.

    I should say here that the collective myth of Christ as example is akin to a major theme in Campbell’s beloved Arthurian myths and literature – that of the individual quest and of the Grail. One lives the myth of the individual quest, not for egocentric desire, but in order to live out one’s deepest being, and in doing so, achieve the Grail. The individual path/quest is a major theme in Campbell’s fourth volume of the “Masks of God” series entitled Creative Mythology, this volume being his magnum opus in my opinion. Interestingly enough, Dr. Ann Casement argues that the search for the Soul in Jung’s Red Book is precisely the quest for the Grail. Thus, when we speak of the “privatization of the collective power of myth,” we need to be exceedingly careful and nuanced in our judgement as to whether or not that entailed an “egocentric desire.” Crucially, that is not a necessary property of “privatizing the collective power of myth.”

    Let me end this by saying I am aware of some scholars like Giegerich who argue against things like private or personal meaning, private myth, etc. – more generally, making that which one holds to be collective as private, personal, subjective, and vice-versa. Such a position needs to be deeply reflected upon, likely a lifetime endeavor. Having begun my reading of the Gnostic works (which support personal meaning and knowing oneself as a path) when they were first published in the late 1970s, and with my contrary experience in my practice of Tibetan Buddhism and reading of Advaita Vedanta (which support universal themes), I have an experiential sense of both sides of this issue, but I have not come to any conclusion in my life as to whether either or both exist and whether one needs to make a choice between the two. This, for me, constitutes a lifetime reflection.