[Religious Types 18] Vision, Pattern, Archetype in Proper Relation?

3 08 2012

[Previous Post in the Series]

I ended the last post looking to speculate about the proper relationship between visionary experience and more intellectual work. Looking at Jung in particular, I realize that is likely to look a little presumptive; Jung was no fool and he was surely doing what he thought best.

I don’t mean to imply either. Jung didn’t have the intellectual tools at his disposal to negotiate his experience, so he had to make them himself. I can be critical and think differently in part because I have Jung’s life and work to study. It is Jung that makes a critical assessment possible and I don’t undervalue the intellectual labor that entailed.

I have thought about what is most central to Jung’s visionary experiences, what is present in them but not appreciated in much of his scholarly work. One aspect stands out above the rest–Jung is addressed in his visionary experience. Or, more actively, we could say the visions address Jung directly. While studies of pattern and archetype deal primarily with the content of the material under consideration, in the visionary experiences, the content acquires personal and intimate dimensions.

The images are revealed to him and the figures address themselves to him. The visions situate Jung within their framework, as a participant. They are, to use a somewhat technical term from Bakhtin, dialogical. They concern the dimension of speech and though they may use symbols/words that have general meaning, they can only be fully understood only by reference to both the person to whom they are addressed and the situation in which they are spoken.

Jung, as the addressee, isn’t a passive character. The material demands a response and throughout Jung’s account in Liber Novus we find him replying to, and debating with, the figures addressing him. That relationship is what defines the visionary experience and it is this relationship that is distorted and elided in an overemphasis on pattern and archetype.

Pattern and archetype have their place, but in approaching visionary experience a great deal of care must be taken. Just as we can deepen our dialogue with a sophisticated informant by appreciating the historical roots of the terms and concepts employed, so Jung could deepen his dialogue by studying how these images have historical roots.

The historical roots alone, though, do not explain the visionary symbols; they merely inform them. The slippage that occurs in Jung’s work is that the common roots and structures of visionary thinking are often treated as the vision itself. The reference to the present and future comes a distant second to a concern for the forms of the past. The unconscious gets treated like a transcript hardwired into the psyche. Contrast the experience of a paleographer of a medieval manuscript with that of two diplomats negotiating across a deep cultural and linguistic divide.

To preserve the visionary dimension of  the experience, the study of its archetypes and patterns ought to be subordinate to the visionary address itself. This is most important for the person experiencing the vision, but it is equally important for those of us trying to understand the vision. The study of archetype and pattern establish the vision’s system of reference, a network of ideas that give its symbols meaning. Those meanings must then be examined in relationship to the concrete situation in which they are delivered.

Questions of scale and scope are immediately raised. Visions may seem general, but they appear to specific individuals and it is to that context that they must first find their application. The degree to which they apply ever more broadly is one of clarification and interpretation.

We have meaningful instances of this outside of visionary experience. Think about the way in which a proverb is delivered. Formally, they often have a vague and universal appearance, as if they apply to all situations. However, they are often spoken in response to a singular and specific circumstance. That circumstance are what give the proverb a clear meaning. Who spoke it and to whom was it addressed? With what situation were these individuals dealing?

The proverb also positions the speaker and the addressee into a historical series of situations to which the proverb has been applied. Those situations can inform a dialogue between speaker and addressee, allowing them to persuade and enlighten each other, fostering thoughtful comparison between the situations associated with the proverb.

At the very least, this entails treating the vision as if it is delivered by something outside of the individual receiving it. All of the work to expand upon the symbols, compare them, situate them in relation to present ritual practice, are secondary to answering to, responding to, the vision. It is the vision that gives the intellectual and ritual work vitality, that situates it in the present and gives it a bearing on the future.

On this point, we can make some sense of the visionary injunction placed on Jung to form a church. A church is a community of individuals who acknowledge a common visionary source and who are committed to working out that bearing of it in the present. The shared response and engagement unites them. That, of course, demands a body of individuals who share ties to a vision. It is not a commitment to belief per se, either, but to being implicated in, subject to, the address found in the vision.

Jung’s vision here projects itself beyond Jung’s personal experience into a possible social field beyond Jung, in which others may find themselves implicated. That isn’t necessarily a ‘church’ in the traditional sense of religious community centered around a building and hierarchy, but it is a good deal more than school of psychotherapy.

Jung’s establishment of a school of psychology situates the demand on a strictly personal scale. By concealing the vision and its address, he made it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone else to participate in the horizon suggested by the vision. By emphasizing self-work in his psychological theory, he further inhibits the participation of others. While his method may help them address and be addressed by whatever occupies the ‘unconscious,’ it does not help them to integrate it more broadly into their social world, alongside others.

The integrated self of Jung’s psychology lacks a vibrant social horizon in which it can encounter the selves of others, even though the cosmic vision that motivated Jung could have provided exactly that for some subset of those it helped.

That horizon isn’t just important for the community it creates. The horizon also lays the groundwork for positioning that community against the still larger social horizon of other communities and individuals. On that horizon, deeper engagements become possible. That horizon is defined by the activity of those involved within it and it is in their activity that genuine negotiation and conflict can emerge. Instead of a presumed commonality of source for all religion, we discover a common world where a future must be made.

This may be the last post for this little series. There remain more than a few things to discuss, especially in regard to Philip K. Dick, but it feels like those might be better suited to a discussion of their own. I’ve enjoyed this meandering topical approach, so maybe I’ll reuse the format for some of those discussions.

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