Still a Crowded Room

“Stick to the imaStill a Crowded Roomge” is perhaps the most concise advice one can come away with from James Hillman’s archetypal psychology.  When trying to see through to what is happening in a dream, or in an imaginal situation of any sort—and even the most concrete of our waking situations has an archetypal dimension, an imaginal basis—one relies on the image itself to deliver the insight, not to any system of thought, book of symbols, or externally imposed source of interpretation.  Image alone, according to Hillman, is sufficient to the task.  “Image,” he taught, “is primary.”

What are we to make then of the adherence to images that is practiced not as a choice, a discipline, or a second language, but as a primary means of taking in and reflecting on the world—and which first came to the popular imagination as the title of autistic writer Temple Grandin’s Thinking In Pictures?

Autism will slip out of view for a moment here, as my answer to this question began in a previous post, in a seemingly unrelated description of what I heard in the music I listened to as a teenager.  The language, out of context as it was, may have seemed overstated:

What I was experiencing, though, I was hearing—not just the terror and confusion, miraculously un-muted, but also the home that lay beyond it, and the timeless Underworld beneath ….

I did have a context in mind when writing those words, a context which stemmed from the same essay from which I had quoted a paragraph or two earlier, Michael Ventura’s Hear That Long Snake Moan.  In it, Ventura explores and illuminates the truism that American music has its roots in Africa, and goes on to suggest that jazz music which focused not on dancing but instead entirely on the musician

“made possible a depth of thought—thought expressed musically but thought nonetheless—fully the equal of European musical thought, but with the intensity, the rhythm and the constellation of meanings that had come out of Africa; and the ‘subject matter’ was purely twentieth century. I submit that if you want a commentary on, say, James Hillman’s book The Dream and the Underworld, listen to Cecil Taylor’s Live in the Black Forest, Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way or Bitch’s Brew, Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

Now, those familiar with the autistic cognitive style know that it is characterized by deep, narrow subject area interests which can last a lifetime, or occur serially, one after another.  My first deep, narrow subject area interest, one which I ate, drank, slept and breathed for a decade before that Ventura essay came into my hands, was the music made by those very musicians listed above—along of course with their contemporaries, but Ventura’s choice of Taylor, Davis, and Mingus spoke volumes to me.  Rarely I expect in the history of serial obsessions, has anyone had such a clearly drawn, personalized map placed in front of them for making a transition from one obsession to the next.

That paragraph went on to list a few more musicians and other writers, but Hillman turned out to be the one alright.  I had virtually no background in psychology, and had to read Thomas Moore’s Hillman reader A Blue Fire three times through before I felt I was ready to move ahead to The Dream and the Underworld.  My paperback copy of A Blue Fire today is near-pristine, a picture of Dorian Gray while the library’s hardcover was left frayed and broken-spined from the time it spent in my gig bag.  Move ahead I did then, for seven years during which the life of my mind gradually took over what had been the life of my music.

I jokingly refer to this period as my graduate school; for those who might know him only from his late-career best-sellers, this all happened while Hillman was still writing only in the dense, demanding prose of the scholarly and well-read.  By the time it was over, while I was no longer a practicing musician, I had absorbed nearly all of his published output, with repeated readings of the major works along with side trips into his sources: yes Jung, Freud, and von Franz, but also Corbin, Bachelard, Yates, Ficino and the Italian Renaissance (Hail Giordano Bruno!), and more, back to the field’s real founder, Heraclitus—and then of course there was an entire generation who had taken up Hillman’s work;  for the final few years I was occupied with reading as many of their books and journal contributions as I could find.

Where was all this in the music I’d grown up with?  Much has been made of jazz as a metaphor for democracy, many voices coming together as one, etc.  Its roots though run not to democratic societies, but to polytheistic ones.  West Africa, Haiti, New Orleans, Congo Square, all imagined the Invisible in terms of pantheons rather than hierarchies.  Just as monotheism leads us to the notion of a single ego responsible over all, societies with many gods recognize many voices, many selves, without the need to see them so unified.  Hillman’s model of the psyche was a poly-centered one, a polytheistic psychology, built on a fully inhabited Underworld, populated on every level with selves and others, living, long-gone, or Invisible, all capable of acting independently from each other.  The sophisticated, contrapuntal polyphony of those voices was already familiar to me in the interplay of pianist Cecil Taylor’s “eighty-eight tuned drums,” not to mention in the lush blend of electric and acoustic sounds Miles had pioneered, or in the paradox of that Mingus big band, elegant and primal both, like the Ellington orchestra gone feral.

Ventura’s writing on American music and other topics as well, I found, was shot through with such insights gleaned from his reading of Hillman and other like-minded thinkers.  In a meditation on marriage, for instance, that was explicitly based on this many-centered view of the psyche he had noted that, “If you are the only one in the room, it is still a crowded room.”

And who then knows and lives that particular insight better than we who are so comfortable—disturbingly, alarmingly so for some—in our “solitude”?  Who appreciates that crowded room, who is more at home in it, who knows its language, listens to its voices, and values its company more fully than we who are autistic?  How ironic that those who are written off as “having no imagination” (as many autistic people are) may well be as thoroughly intimate with imagination as it is possible for a human being to be.

With a decade and a half gone by since I was fully immersed in it, archetypal psychology is no longer so firmly in my grasp.  And yet all along there have been these passageways, connections, correspondences.

Image as coin of the realm, as the stuff of psyche itself, of Psyche herself—and the profoundly autistic mind that by default traffics only in “pictures” which are in fact full, five- or six-sense images much as we all experience in dreams.

The Ars Memoria that figures heavily into archetypal psychology, the Memory Palaces in which terabytes of information were stored in Renaissance minds by means of imagery rather than language—and the savant skills known to anyone who’s seen Rain Man.

Even the monotheist’s horror of Image, of imago, personified by Jesuit monk Marin Mersenne, who was prominently read out by Hillman for the success of his Seventeenth-century crusades against all work (and play) which required any intimacy with imagery—and the crusades of modern-day Dursleys such as Autism Speaks, motivated by seemingly far more shallow motives but seeking just the same to eliminate picture-thought and picture-thinkers from the world.

I see these correspondences in the work as well of my fellow contributor, Andrew Lehman.  He posits an aboriginal time when autism was more of a norm, and waking life was not so different from dreaming—while Hillman, not so big on dream work per se, explicitly advocated the reading of waking life as if it were a dream.

There have been many more like these which have snuck up on me even in recent weeks, images gliding out from unsuspected passageways, gently tapping me on the shoulder, then drifting back out of mind before I’ve made the time to write down their particulars.  So let this stand as an apology to them for my inattention.  May they continue to cross my path, and allow me to stick with them long enough to map out a few of those passageways.

on 10/2/09 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 1 Comment | Read More

Comments (1)


  1. Kwombles says:

    What a lyrical jaunt; I’m sorry I’d missed reading this post.

    I have serial obsessions, as well, years immersed in a particular topic before diving headlong into a completely different field.

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