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

Viewing 7 posts - 16 through 22 (of 22 total)
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    Robert Juliano

      Let us consider the admonition to “stick to the image.” It is worth noting that this advice long precedes 20th century depth psychology. For example, we see it in the writings of the medieval and early modern Latin alchemists. In his 1954 book Mysterium Coniunctionis, Jung wrote that we might interpret in modern language an alchemical recipe from the 16th century alchemist Gerhard Dorn as follows:

      Take the unconscious in one of its handiest forms, say a spontaneous fantasy, a dream, an irrational mood, an affect, or something of the kind, and operate with it. Give it your special attention, concentrate on it, and observe its alterations objectively. Spare no effort to devote yourself to this task, follow the subsequent transformations of the spontaneous fantasy attentively and carefully. Above all, don’t let anything from outside, that does not belong, get into it, for the fantasy-image has ‘everything it needs.’

      Note that Giegerich, in his paper “The Smuggling Inherent in the Logic of the “Psychology of the Unconscious” in The Flight into the Unconscious: An Analysis of C. G. Jung’s Psychology Project – Collected English Papers, Volume 5, translated the last sentence in Jung’s original German text as “Above all, don’t let anything from outside, that does not belong, get into it, for the fantasy-image has ‘everything it needs’ WITHIN ITSELF” (emphasis mine).

      It is absolutely critical that we have a living relationship to the advice “stick to the image” and that we see its truth in our own lives and in our own work. As it was Raphael Lopez-Pedraza’s advice to “stick to the image,” we must understand how this took form in his life as well as in the lives of others who have recommended it such as the alchemists, Jung, Hillman, etc. Crucially, we should likewise recommend that sometimes this advice was not always implemented. Giegerich observed that there are numerous examples where neither Jung nor Hillman stuck with the image. And we must review those examples and come to our own conclusions as to why they did not stick to the image there. It may be that there are cases where “stick to the image” is not appropriate.

      Now, I have great concerns that the discussion of the Christian myth here does not, in fact, “stick to the image.” In using an important standard stated by Giegerich regarding amplification that it involves only “an intensification of what is already there, rather than either a translation of it into other images and notions or a rather mindless amassing, by way of association, of other images that are only superficially, abstractly related,” what I see being associated here are certain interpretations of the Christian myth, associations which, in my opinion, violate Hegel’s admonition to avoid modes of “external reflection.” Associating our own beliefs with what we perceive in the movie takes us closer to our own beliefs, no? Thus, I counsel that we be exceedingly and extraordinary careful here!

      Finally, I should say that I did not experience this movie as pessimistic at all. On the contrary, I found it quite realistic and was particularly moved at the way certain of the characters soldiered on, continued to live their lives and learned from them, and worked to help each other. This is what I call affirming life and “Living into the Decline.”


      I apologize for being tardy to the party – the multiple demands of the mundane, workaday world have gotten in the way of composing long thoughtful posts . . . and even this comment is an all too fleeting response.

      Robert – I appreciate the reference to Spengler (whom I never would have read if it weren’t for Joseph Campbell); though I wouldn’t exactly call that final scene around the dinner table a solution (which, at least in the popular sense, implies a fix that remedies the crisis), I agree that moment of authenticity is indeed the most appropriate response.

      And Norland – thank you for focusing the discussion on the imagery in the film, and emphasizing a mythological reading of the symbolism in the film. And I really love the resonance of that final dinner scene with the Last Supper. Of course, there are significant differences (one never finds an exact, point-by-point correspondence between symbols), but the feeling-tone is much the same.

      Though I know you are both already aware of the following, I’d like to share a couple relevant observations by Campbell on symbolism and image, so that anyone following the discussion who might not be as conversant doesn’t get lost. And I’ll have to ask you to trust me on the source of these quotations, which are from an unpublished manuscript I’ve edited for JCF, slated for release in 2023, drawn from multiple obscure interviews with Campbell, as well as audience Q & A sessions with Joe after his lectures.

      First, Campbell on symbolism:

      I’m calling a symbol a sign that points past itself to a ground of meaning and being that is one with the consciousness of the beholder. What you’re learning in myth is about yourself as part of the being of the world. If it talks not about you finally, but about something out there, then it’s short.”

      And a slightly more detailed excerpt on visual imagery:

      The logics of image thinking and of verbal thinking are two very different logics.⁠ I’m more and more convinced that there is, as it were, a series of archetypes which are psychologically grounded, which just have to operate, but in whatever field is available to them. In the myths, they are represented pictorially. There’s a big distinction to be made between the impact of the image, and the intellectual and social interpretation and application of the image.

      . . . Mythology talks through the image.⁠ And what transforms consciousness is not the language, but the image. The impact of the image is the initiating experience⁠. So by understanding—or trying to understand—the communication of the imagery of myth, just as trying to understand the communication of the imagery of your dreams, you bring yourself into accord with your own deeper nature.⁠”

      So what is the primary image in this film that precipitates the crisis?

      That damn comet hurtling towards Earth.

      Sure, this of course can be seen as an allegory for climate change, especially given the filmmaker’s intention – but, as Norland so elegantly points out in the second paragraph of his essay, “A truly mythological reading of the comet would show its reflected meaning in the many mirrors it contains, drawing from the internal resources of its archetypal imagery.”

      YES! That’s one reason why I find myself nodding my head at every post in this thread, as a mythological symbol contains so many possibilities – parallel and paradoxical – enfolded in a single image.

      So I’d like to throw one more thought into the mix. As opposed to a reductive interpretation (the comet is exclusively a stand-in for climate change and nothing else), this might be an overly expansive and all too simplistic reading, but it’s been stirring my imagination for a couple months now.

      The comet is on a collision course with Earth. All efforts to prevent it, or escape it, are futile; in the end, everyone dies. (Granted, for comedic purposes Jason [Jonah Hill], the president’s son, does survive impact, but the odds for long term survival aren’t exactly in his favor – and even the privileged and powerful find their escape comes up short.)

      What is it that’s coming for each of us, regardless of wealth, status, or privilege? What is the one inevitable and inescapable conclusion each must face?

      Don’t Look Up is described as a dark comedy – or a tragicomedy, which brings to mind Campbell’s reference to Stephen Dedalus’ interpretation in Joyce’s work of Aristotle, who labels the tragic emotions pity and terror:

      ‘Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer.’ Not the poor, the black, the jobless sufferer, be it noted, but the human sufferer. We are penetrating the local, ethnic, or social mask to the human being.

      ‘Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.’ Here we are moving toward an experience of the sublime. What is the secret cause of any moment of suffering? . . . [E]very life, either knowingly or unknowingly, is in process toward its limitation in death, which limitation is of the nature of life.” (Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space 102, 103)

      Part of the adverse reaction to the film is what some have referred to as its pessimism, manifested in that moment when all efforts have failed and it becomes clear there will be no rescue, no deus ex machina, no happily ever aftering – and every human becomes aware they are about to die (save for the comparatively small handful who abandon the rest of humanity, believing, like many cultists, that there is a way out – though, as we see in the penultimate scene, there is no escaping Death).

      It’s hard for any viewer not to share in that sense of terror that the bulk of humanity in the film feels in the face of certain death. Who wouldn’t feel the same, to know the exact day and hour one will end?

      On the same page, Campbell speaks of this awareness in one’s own life of what is “grave and constant” as an affirmation: “And in this affirmation itself the mind is carried beyond, purged and cleansed of the fear of death.”

      Which brings me back around to one of Robert’s concluding sentences, in post #6837: “We should not live life in despair – we must go on living, not a provisional life in fear, but an authentic life, affirming and embracing Life as it is.” That is indeed the vibe of the gathering of scientists and friends around the dinner table, breaking bread together and enjoying each other’s company in their final moments

      . . . and also resonates with that sense of communion depicted at the Last Supper (though only the Christ knew in that company what lay ahead).

      My thought is that placing Death in its archetypal aspect – inevitable, inescapable, and universal – front and center is what stirs such an intense reaction in viewers. Of course today, when it comes to mortality, the default setting for most people is “don’t look up”; rather than examine that existential dread, far easier for most to focus on partisan wrangling over climate change.

      Norland and Robert, I know this post is sloppy, lacking in nuance, a touch hurried in comparison, and sort of peters out at the end – and I apologize for that.

      Thanks for bearing with me!


        Thank you Stephen for steering us back to Joseph Campbell and to the myth at hand.

        It really is difficult to resist the temptation to talk about myth, to talk about “sticking to the image,” instead of actually doing it and learning to speak within it. This “talk about” is always taking place in the modes of external reflection, where we can put into play our pet theories “about” myth, only to impose them on our material, without noticing we have lost the essence of the thing. Evidently, external reflection comes much more naturally to us; it corresponds to our everyday mindset in dealing with external objects.

        To that effect, I also love the quotes from Giegerich which Robert has brought as these very quotes are also running in the back of my mind:

        “Above all, don’t let anything from outside, that does not belong, get into it, for the fantasy-image has ‘everything it needs’ WITHIN ITSELF”

        I absolutely agree. And if I am bringing Christian symbolism is only because we can find it WITHIN the film. And I totally agree that the point of amplification is to serve as a mode of intensification which should lead to the releasement of a certain archetypal truth—and that is exactly what bringing the Christian myth does. But I would not go on and start talking about Adonis or Osiris and fall into an infinite regress of archetypal models of “dying and resurrecting Gods”; all such piling on of parallels indeed would not advance our understanding one bit. But it’s another question to ask what the Christian symbolism means which makes it irreducible to any other previous myth. This is what Jungians cannot grasp, fond as it is to reducing the present and future into the past: what makes a myth a true breakthrough, irreducible to what has come before.

        I should think that the image of the final prayer should make the importance of the presence of Christian symbolism as plain as can be. The only question is whether or not we want to think about it. The analogies to the Last Supper are significant, including the Christian prayer placed at the most deeply felt moment of pathos of the film. And the fact that it is understood in the frame of a Thanksgiving ritual.

        Now, it is true that I no longer subscribe to the psychologistic reduction of myth which is taught at PGI, something which, up to a point, Giegerich and Hillman also criticize. So I totally disagree with the psychologistic reduction of Christ as a symbol of a personal individuation: the God-man, the completed individual, etc. From my viewpoint, this kind of interpretation of Christ is more akin to what Isherwell symbolizes: a kind of privatization of the collective power of myth for one’s own ego-centric desires.

        I have had to shift my position from when I started at PGI away from such Jungian psychologism, and have moved instead towards the notion of mytho-history, as you all well know, for this was the notion which my dissertation on the Popol Vuh drove all the way home.

        Of course, archetypes are never identical with themselves across their temporal manifestations. If they were, they would not be archetypes but stereotypes. When this non-identity within identity is lacking, and their temporality is divorced from their “eternal” nature (sub specie aeternitatis), then you know we are dealing with a stereotype. The mercurial fluid of archetypal reality, on the other hand, is always going through a process of transformation and change.

        This is another fundamental lesson I learned from studying Maya culture, in which temporality is not external but intrinsic to archetypal reality. As is well known, the Maya are famous for having developed some of the most beautiful and accurate, marvelously complex calendric systems (a topic for another day!).

        The way I understand it, “To stick to the image” simply means “learn to abide with it,” learn to tarry with the paradoxicality of its absolute negativity, so as to grasp the collective ground of the mythic structure from within itself, from within its own archetypal imagination, as a universal form of mytho-historic consciousness.

        So I love the quote by Campbell on symbolism, but I’d like to give it a slight twist away from psychologism in order to suggest that this “consciousness of the beholder” in which the “ground of meaning and being” resides is not necessarily the kind that belongs to an ego-centric, individualistic form of consciousness. Campbell himself qualifies it with an awareness that, while you’re in this form of consciousness, you are “part of the being of the world.” It is just as much a collective as it is an individual form of awareness—which surely would include our social reality, our being embedded in a network of relationship with others, as well as being involved in the media landscape, network of institutions, and systems of government, etc. That is my twist, which I am well aware goes against the grain of conventional Jungian wisdom, the wisdom of a mysticism where it is me and myself alone “at one” with the oceanic universe. I think a form of “mysticism” that leaves out all of that, the social as well as our political “oneness” with the collective unconscious, also leaves out the psyche’s existential weight, falling “short” of true myth as mytho-history. With this in mind, reading the quote once again:

        “I’m calling a symbol a sign that points past itself to a ground of meaning and being that is one with the consciousness of the beholder. What you’re learning in myth is about. If it talks not about you finally, but about something out there, then it’s short.”

        Whereas true myth makes me aware of my embeddedness in a collective reality, I read the privative instances that Campbell mentions, instances when it comes “short,” as examples of “personal mythologies,” i.e., the realm of “private truth” or pure ideology, which Don’t Look Up brilliantly depicts as something that lies at the heart of the conflict.

        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.


          I think you can also see the comet also as the virus. Look at how we have viewed the data and scientists throughout this mess- often dismissive, reactive, and subservient to capitalistic forces. When acting is politically expedient, we will do so, but only on a temporary basis. How President Orlean handles the situation evokes both presidents Trump and Biden to certain degrees. One can certainly imagine Trump laughing it off and then moving in time to save face for election season. And I recall a keen sense of hope when Biden was elected that our own form of launching rockets into the sky and destroying the comet was going to work. But here we are 2 years later and it’s not hard to see BASH in the pharmaceutical companies creating rounds of vaccines, and disaster capitalism as a boon for the ever-important economy…Yes then it is about climate change, because how we’ve handled that is reflected in how we’ve handled other crises. But have we handled these things so poorly because we have severed myth and art from playing key roles in our collective consciousness? Is there hope at all that we can recover these elements and rebuild anew from the destruction wrought by “the comet” of our lifetime?




          An astute observation, Brian – every point of comparison you raise rings true.

          My initial thought on first hearing about the film was that it seemed to be lampooning the coronavirus response in the U.S.; whether or not the filmmaker intended that (hard to believe he didn’t, at least to a degree), I can understand why Adam McKay preferred to focus exclusively on climate change on the talk show circuit. After all, despite the existential threat human-accelerated global warming poses, much of the public seems a bit removed from the sense of immediate consequences, whereas we are all in the Covid bubble right now, with everyone’s vision obscured by the delusions generated under the “fog-of-war.” Passions are high on all sides; I imagine if McKay and the cast had focused on parallels to the pandemic, that would have alienated half the potential audience from the outset, feeling they were being attacked.

          Though there is still of course a partisan divide over climate change, it doesn’t seem quite so, well, personal at the moment, despite the fact it is potentially far more disruptive than the virus to the planet overall, endangering animal and plant species as well as humans. And with decades of observation and study behind us, the science re human action accelerating global warming is far more conclusive than the science surrounding the pandemic, which continues to evolve as the situation evolves; even though the parallels with the pandemic seem clear, I suspect McKay is leaving it to the viewer to connect those dots, preferring to emphasize that widespread science denialism in our society long predates the emergence of the novel coronavirus. (Of course, the beauty of the comet as metaphor is that there is no ambiguity; ignoring it requires active, willful denial: “Don’t look up!” Ironically, shifting to the completely manmade tragedy unfolding in eastern Europe, “don’t look up” is the official stance imposed on the Russian populace by their warlord.)

          What I appreciate about Norland’s thought-provoking analysis is his focus on the symbolism, including its psychological and mystical implications, which isn’t tethered to the film as just a metaphor for climate change or Covid – which, at least in my mind, brings us around to your questions, about how “we have severed myth and art from playing key roles in our collective consciousness.”

          On a positive note, the film itself is an artistic response to your question. Despite the fact that “Don’t Look Up is a touch self-conscious and clumsy, I don’t see so much as didactic (advocating a specific course of action, which Campbell deplores in art), as turning a mirror on contemporary society.

          Alas, it’s just a start . . .


          Thank you Stephen, I appreciate your thoughtful response. Yes, I agree looking at the film through the psychological and mystical lens opens it up in a really neat way. When I watched it for the first time I wasn’t consciously thinking about that aspect, but still enjoying it, and not entirely for reasons I was conscious of at the time. Norland’s analysis gives us a rich way to examine it, and I’m looking forward to rewatching it and other films that strike a similar chord.

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