How compatible is the soul’s knowledge with accounts of the “why” of the journey?

If, as Hillman thinks, there is a particular kind of mystical “knowledge in the soul” which stems from recollections of underworld journeys, then we might ask whether this helps us to further clarify the “why”: namely, why a gradual removal from life and the world (which is what an underworld journey amounts to) is so important for the psyche. I have already traced three theoretical approaches to that question in the Jungian tradition. Let’s see how compatible each of them is with Hillman’s special form of knowledge. (There is a fourth option which I have sketched, but I’m going to postpone discussion of that one.)

1. The first theory is based on the idea that a withdrawal from life and the world is required because the latter distract and disturb the delicate process of soul-making — at least in some cases, they thus have to be shut out.

The Hillmanian notion of “knowledge in the soul” seems congenial with this theory, for that knowledge is conceived of as elusive and ephemeral, along the lines of recollections from dreams or memories of intense experiences (such as spiritual journeys or personal crises). To hold on to a consciousness of such knowledge, one would assume, will be tricky even under the best of circumstances; the noises of the external world would make it correspondingly harder. What is more: the particular choice of phrase (“knowledge in soul”) is apt, since the notion of soul-making is based in part on the character of soul (in contrast to both spirit and matter) as an immersion metaphor.

2. According to the second theory, the underworld journey is triggered by a world which has become calcified, and needs to be spiritually rejuvenated.

As I have already pointed out, this theory (for all its potential to make elegant interpretations of mythical narratives, many of which we find in Jung himself or in Campbell’s “hero’s journey”) has difficulties accounting for how the insights thus gained can become re-integrated, given their mysterious character. (“How to render back into light-world language the speech-defying pronouncements of the dark?”, as Campbell succinctly states the problem; Hero, 188.) Hillman’s “knowledge in the soul” accentuates this difficulty, for at the base of that notion is again this dream-like character of the insights in question, elusive and ephemeral, difficult even to recall, and hard to state in clear language.

3. The third theory of the “why” locates the underworld journey in the larger process of individuation: individuals turn towards the interior as a way to differentiate themselves from the largely collective patterns that dominate the external world. (Individuals don’t necessarily do that of their own initiative or will: more frequently, or perhaps always, the individuation process is pushed forward by a neurotic conflict or some other dynamic which originates in the unconscious.)

This process is one of integrating more of the individual’s particular traits into consciousness, withdrawing projections, and so on. Insofar, it would seem to result in a clearer consciousness as well as in a kind of voluntary self-restraint on part of the ego: on the one hand, consciousness integrates contents from Shadow, Anima & co; but on the other hand, it recognizes the unconscious as unknowable and uncontrollable, too. Neither of these two forms of addition to consciousness appear to be the form that Hillman describes as “knowledge in soul”, which is “desubstantiated, dissolved into a shadow of itself”.

In contrast to the first and second theory, then, with the third theory it seems that the idea of a “knowledge in the soul” makes not much of a difference in either direction. But it does seem rather uncongenial.

By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.

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