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Reply To: The Child of Symbolic Disguise,” with Norland Téllez, Ph.D.”

Robert Juliano

    mythistorian, some points:

    To communicate one’s partiality is certainly important. For example, when publishing research (especially qualitative research), one makes explicit what I call the axioms of research: epistemology, methodology, ontology. One could look at this as a sort of apologetics for one’s partiality. And when doing a doctoral dissertation at PGI, the first section gives even deeper insight into one’s partiality which is essential for evaluating the scholarship of what is contained in the subsequent chapters. I have seen criticism of the inclusion of this section from members of other, more traditional, institutions, but I find this section to be absolutely invaluable. It is critical, however, to note that one can also work to transcend one’s partiality. This is a major practice in certain traditions of Buddhism and of the approach of Advaita Vedanta. One spends a lifetime cultivating such transcendence, even to the point of transcending one’s own Buddhist or Hindu partiality. This is what is implied in Nagarjuna’s final chapter of his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā – “Examination of Views.”

    Now, let us apply this to the current dialogue. While looking at the full spectrum of partiality is certainly good, the issue I raised about not reducing your interlocutor’s position to statements of partiality requires that we look at one end of that spectrum, and thus the microscope is an appropriate metaphor. Crucially, it is far more respectful to your interlocutor to ask *why* they have a given view instead of making an assumption about their partiality and insulting them by reducing the complexity of their life experience through which they arrived at that position to unidimensional explanations of partiality. You do great disservice when you do this. It is one thing to communicate one’s understanding of their own partiality, but completely bad form to make assumptions about the partiality of others.

    A quick word about ‘meaning’. ‘Meaning’ is not nor should be considered a universal goal or a goal which is desired universally. In my experience in the Eastern traditions, meaning is, at best, held provisionally, and there are other relationships which are more effective in achieving their goals. One extreme which comes to mind is utter dismemberment. One is “destroyed” in an encounter with an image, and this is a necessary experience. Somehow, though, one is put back together – a deep mystery. This is also experienced in shamanic initiations. The specific shamanic tradition I am thinking about was described by Dr. Malidoma Somé in his initiation into the Dagara community in Burkina Faso, West Africa. This initiation is exceedingly dangerous and there have been deaths as a result of it. The challenge Dr. Somé faced was that he was taken from his people at a very young age and forced to have a Western education for ~15 years. Thus, he was far older when he took initiation than normal, and his Western education could severely interfere with the sort of dismemberment endured during initiation. I had the honor and pleasure of having an audience with him in 2014. His aura was very powerful and wonderful, something I have felt only with some highly realized Tibetan Rinpoches. Unfortunately, Dr. Somé passed away very recently.

    To be clear, I was not talking about the Kantian understanding of “absolute truth.” I discussed the notion of absolute truth more informally as my exposure to the notion is more variegated and includes multiple traditions. Central to many of them is the notion of absolute truth as conditionless, a notion which does not hold up to rational scrutiny. But, in the formal portion of my statements, I stressed the character of the necessity for a finite number of steps in a given proof in order to contrast this with a dialectic of unending and infinite scale, and this was another reason I brought up Cantor’s levels of infinity beyond which leads to contradiction. Outside of the various traditions of which we are familiar, I just have seen nothing in human experience which, when subject to careful reflection, supports a hypothesis of anything like absolute truth.

    The notion of “redeemer of alchemy” is exceedingly problematic to me. Alchemy requires no redemption! What needs redemption is the modern attitude toward the past. The pattern of thinking that holds that later knowledge corrects earlier knowledge is very unhealthy and is, in many ways, utterly destructive. One of the themes I have worked on in the past is contrasting various traditions with respect to the prevailing worldview (or at least the view of Western culture) of improvement (e.g., my note on Affirmation of Decline). Many traditions, even parts of the West, see our current state as one of decline or even in the final stage before the new arises. Thus, the pattern of thinking about current knowledge correcting previous knowledge hardly augers well. I wrote a critique of James Hillman’s paper The Measure of Events: Proclus’ Proposition 117 in the View of an Archetypal Psychology which was about making scientific measure less narrow. Because of the position he took in that paper which seems quite reasonable from an Archetypal Psychology perspective, I felt compelled to go through 2500 years of mathematics and science history. And based on this experience, I cultivated the position that scientific measure is a product of a culture during a particular time of its history. Such a measure embodies a set of beliefs which may not be applicable to other cultures at other times. And when these beliefs are no longer held or if they are misunderstood, the entire judgement on their form of scientific measure which embodies those beliefs can be problematic. Such is the case with medieval and early modern Latin alchemy. It embodies beliefs and perspectives which are no longer held or even understood. Take, for example, the Hermetic notion of the correspondentia. The view of the correspondence between inner and outer, above and below, etc., a view absolutely essential to alchemy, was in the process of being abandoned during the 17th century A.D. Without a proper understanding and appreciation of such views, alchemy looks absolutely ridiculous to our modern eyes. This is why cultivation of an understanding of the views prevalent during the medieval and early modern period is necessary for a reasonable understanding of Latin alchemy. And when this is done, I believe it is clear that alchemy requires no redemption.

    When I discussed form and content, I don’t think I described it as a dichotomy. I certainly don’t consider them to express a dichotomy. Instead, I was emphasizing that the realization of their interdependence was very much non-trivial and that mathematics was one of the disciplines which demonstrates this complexity. And form/content was not intended to only be applicable to alchemy, but more generally to the image as a whole. Our relationship with the image is greatly hindered by our lack of understanding and appreciation of the interdependence of form and content which, ideally, could be thought as being one thing. Thus, we sometimes try to extract content from an image without careful attention to its form or by ignoring certain details about its form because it does not serve our purposes. Obviously, the image in general and alchemy in particular constitute a far broader spectrum than form/content, but I intended the simple version of form and content to provide a way of thinking of something relevant yet tractable, something to which we could employ the traditions of logic and mathematics which could lead to a more modern understanding of an ancient mystery. And it was this unity of form and content that lends plausibility recognized by disciplines other than depth psychology to Jung’s statement “Image and meaning are identical; and as the first takes shape, the latter becomes clear.”

    As I mentioned in one of my earlier responses, alchemy can and should be approached by multiple disciplines. For example, there are two historians of science who have published excellent work on alchemy – Dr. Lawrence Principe and Dr. William Newman, and they very much disagree with Jung’s hermeneutic. Furthermore, Dr. Principe is a chemist and has provided hard evidence that some of what the alchemists wrote (e.g., certain alchemical recipes) were practical and useful. Specifically, he has reconstructed the intended results on the basis of following the instructions contained in some of the alchemical recipes. Other traditions which have been invaluable to the modern multidisciplinary study of alchemy include history of religion, medieval literature, philology/linguistics and classical languages, chemistry, and of course depth psychology. And it is good to appreciate the immense complexities in those areas where experts in each of these disciplines agree and disagree.

    Now, it is very much worth reading a history of how Jung came to commit in the early 1930s to the deep study of alchemy. It was far from being an easy process for Jung, and he was very reluctant to commit to alchemy for many years. But, a combination of inner and outer forces compelled him to this path. An important outer force was that his patients and colleagues were having powerful dreams with alchemical imagery and, in order to help them, Jung had to understand that imagery. A careful reading of Jung’s history, the Black Books, the Red Book, Jung’s work with the traditions of the Gnostics, and his dreams will lend a certain insight into the organic nature his study of and approach to alchemy took. I very much would like to read Jung’s alchemical notebooks because they would provide additional invaluable insights into Jung’s process. But, I mention this because Jung’s work on alchemy must be evaluated relative to that which was driving him and whether he was successful in accomplishing the goals which were set to him. Note that the Black Books unfortunately end in 1932, about 2 years before he began his deep study of alchemy. Thus, unfortunately, we don’t know what the unconscious thinks about his progress. But, one relevant question is whether Jung was able to help his patients with their alchemical dreams because of his work. If so, would this not constitute some support by the unconscious that Jung was on the right track?

    You claimed that “Jung could not see the problem of alchemy in terms of logical form or logical status.” I would like to see hard evidence for this. Do you have any? Again. I think it is critical that we evaluate Jung’s approach in relation to what was driving him and what he was tasked to do instead of prematurely collapsing the complexities of what surrounded his work into judgements of incapability.

    On a related note, one interesting work by a scholar who earned her doctoral degree in philosophy was entitled Nietzsche and Jung: The Whole Self in the Union of Opposites by Dr. Lucy Huskinson. It is interesting because it contrasts their respective approaches to where the union of opposites comes from. For Jung, it is new (i.e., not part of the opposites) and emerges, deo concedente, from the unconscious. For Nietzsche, it already exists in the opposites – that it is inherent in them. Thus, as Dr. Huskinson argues in her book, for Jung, the Self is discovered; for Nietzsche, the Self is created. The issues she tackles in her book are relevant, I believe, to the contrast between Giegerich’s approach to the coniunctio and Jung’s.

    Finally, the work to use our “prejudices” to arrive at higher or deeper truths, of course, is hardly new and goes back much farther than the philosophers being discussed here. It goes back to at least the 2nd century A.D., both in the traditions of the West and those in the East. For the West, this would include the approaches by the ancient Gnostics; in the East, this would be embodied, in part, by the Two Truths which were articulated by the Madhymaka philosophers, but has a long history which precedes them, possibly going back to the time of the Buddha.