Descent's Alchemy: The Imaginal Process of Falling Apart -Stephanie Pope
Shortly before his death Carl Jung commented that we are perhaps looking at the world from the wrong side. “We might find the right answer,” he says “by changing our point of view and looking…not from the outside, but from the inside” (Jaffé 216). James Hillman expresses the sense of this “inside” advantage we are seeking.
Active imagination, talking directly to the thing you are dealing with, was Jung’s way of allowing ego direct contact with what the inner psychic factors had to say. He derived this method from his understanding of the stages of alchemy, thinking of the psychological tradition of alchemy as the art of active imagination with materiality (von Franz 22). The alchemists project their own psychological depths into their materials. Thus, in the work was also the alchemist’s soul-making (Re-visioning 90). Alchemy, active imagination, and journeys of descent are ways to seek out what the soul wants. All three employ as their means imagination. Discovering what brings meaning to life, what enlivens and vitalizes life (for surely this is that to which the term soul-making refers) involves an imaginative process.
I remember during my own participation in the reenactment of the myth of the descent of Inanna to the underworld during February of 2002, how I felt the need to descend because I had become very disenchanted with the world I lived in. The world that I perceived no longer seemed related to the world living in me. Hillman suggests that what had happened to me in my soul-sense is soul loss; soul is lost in a literal perspective, its identity with material life. Soul like this is too coagulated with physical realities and needs to break down, fall apart, or be blackened by melancholic frustrations (Re-visioning 90). So my feelings of disenchantment were the black metaphor suggesting the need to transmute my natural viewpoint into an imaginal one.
The ancients seemed to understand this need in the soul’s viewpoint to free itself from its material and natural view of itself (Macary, “Why the Descent”). In the myth of Inanna’s descent Inanna (ego) moves inward and through seven entry points, relinquishing as she descends, a little more of her (ego’s) authority each time. Finally, she appears before her sister side (soul life) naked (stripped of ego) and condemned to the experience of mortification (death) and putrification (decay). It seems the ancients knew that soul-renewal requires a complete dis-identification to ego’s habits and attitudes that obscure a view to the psychic in-sides, those subtler voices speaking at the silenced edges, along the margins and in the gaps where meaning first leaves life. Macary writes
The potency to me of this move is in its depotentiating ability. It takes me out of my head logic and into the unknown no-where fictive space of psychic reality where symbolically I continue to “undress” ego by giving up the voice of its presence seven times in seven gestures of relinquishment. The crucial thing here for me is the realization that this movement does not take me away from the world of the living but more fully into the mattering world in which I find myself truly living. Renewal and rebirth are about living what matters by dis-covering it or disrobing the matter living in the soul unknown to the knowing mind.
Stan Marlan also talks about this movement from the head place to the place of our ground and matter by saying that when we do this it is as if we “put on the sandals of Hermes” (13). By taking off our literal shoes we put on our psychic ones. According to Linney Wix, a psychotherapist in the area of play therapy, this is like stepping backwards (13). One undoes oneself by way of symbol (this backward walk of Hermes) and reunites to the living, dark ground or prima materia of the psyche in a work against nature. This means it is as if one dies in ones material and natural view. The imaginal view takes over. And Hermes is guide. This makes the psychological movement not only regressive (an undoing) but also a movement toward the possibility of renewal in greater psychic complexity. Also, this opens the way to a more mature psychological viewpoint capable of dealing with life from a soulful and deeper dimension of regard.
Now, both the alchemical process and imaginal soul processes work within minimal space and indicate that the soul “is not moved by our moving through it” (Revisioning 93). It is we not it who require changing, the closed space, and its heat of oppression expressing pathos, for this reminds us that the idea of interiority refers to psychological space (a realm of depth) apprehended through inwardness of image. We apprehend this idea by way of an image of vertical descent (94).
From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.
Perhaps it is this image of the open ear that first gives me my sense of enclosure and also disclosure as I move from the antechamber into the temple chamber of the underworld to undergo a reenactment of Inanna’s descent that day in February. By following in the path of the ancients I was discovering/dis-covering the way of Psyche’s own motion, a motion never moving outside of itself (Marlan 17). I was turning---turning around my own turning that turns out to be a re-turning of and to the idea of me in my own ground of being. My rebirth that day happened in the flame of a still desire.
Hillman, James. Healing Fiction. Connecticut: Spring Publications, Inc., 1983.
Pope, Stephanie. “A Still Desire”. Like A Woman Falling. Scotsdale:Mythic Artist Press, 2004.
---“The Best Things”. MYTHoPOETRY, 2002. June 16, 2002.
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