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“Powerful and serious fictions”: The mythic/psychic reality of gods and other fictional characters

From a recent blog post by psychologist and author Thomas Moore, in which he elucidates one of the key insights from his mentor in depth psychology, the late, great James Hillman:

“An axiom of depth psychology asserts that what is not admitted into awareness irrupts in ungainly obsessive, literalistic ways, affecting consciousness with precisely the qualities it strives to exclude. Personifying not allowed as a metaphorical vision returns in concrete form: we seize upon people, we cling to other persons.” — James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, p. 46.

James Hillman always spoke of the Greek gods as if they were present, not literal but real. Years ago I read Karl Kerenyi’s idea that religion begins in the atmosphere of a place or situation. I thought of Artemis, a spirit I feel strongly in play in my life, and I imagined feeling her presence as she is depicted in classical poetry, as the atmosphere you sense when you are in a pristine forest, far from civilization. I can imagine that same “atmosphere” within myself, some place so pristine and uncontaminated that is has the qualities associated with Artemis. So I can speak of Artemis in me and in the world without being naive or simplistic.

An image for Hillman is not an intellectual abstraction but a presence, again, one that is real but not literal. The Mona Lisa, Hamlet, and Sherlock Holmes have become so real in some people’s imagination that they relate to the figures as real presences, though they know they are fictions. Seeing the astrological conditions of an ordinary day may be another way of taking certain images seriously without turning them into abstract ideas or confusing them with actual persons.

. . . If I don’t treat the images of dream and the stories of life as powerful and serious fictions, therapy itself becomes personalistic. I get involved in my own pet ideas and agendas, and I try to influence the person I’m trying to help rather than care for the soul. Therapy becomes life management based on personal prejudices or on the wishes of the client.

And so, it’s important to read fiction and poetry and drama; to contemplate paintings and movies; to listen closely to music and to make interesting photographs — all to keep imagination alive, to serve what Hillman calls “the metaphorical persons,” the gods and characters and personalities of fiction, because fiction is more important than we could ever imagine. Wallace Stevens wrote: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else.”

More: “Real Presences

(Also see “Why dreams are the new Book of Revelation in our post-apocalyptic world.”)