Archetypal Psychology and Reversion
Archetypal psychology holds that, when dealing with a psychological breakdown, one must “see through” the symptoms, and examine the mythological material that underlies the event. Assuming the “psychological sickness is an enactment of a pathologizing fantasy, archetypal psychology proceeds to search for the archai, the governing principles or root metaphors of the fantasy” (Hillman, Re-visioning 99). Hillman borrows, here, from Plotinus’ idea of epistrophe, or reversion.
Archetypal psychology would attempt to lead the pathologizing into meaning through resemblance with an archetypal background following the principle stated by Plotinus, “All knowing comes by likeness,”…the idea that all things desire to return to the archetypal originals from which they are copies and from which they proceed (ibid.).
Reversion “connects an event to its image, a psychic process to its myth, a suffering of the soul to the imaginal mystery expressed therein” (Hillman, Dream 4). This is a phenomenological process where one asks the image to reveal its archetypal foundations, to which god or goddess it belongs. One need not necessarily be an expert in Greek mythology. The archetypes arise in most world mythologies, as Joseph Campbell so aptly demonstrated. As a prerequisite, one should, however, be schooled in the manner in which the archetypes manifest themselves, be it in Greek mythology, Norse mythology, or any other foundational mythology. It just so happens that Greek mythology is very well suited to our Western mindset, since it is the substructural mythology of all Western culture.
This method was Hillman’s preference over Jung’s general idea of seeing psychological events through the eyes of opposites. Of that theory, Hillman says,
…it’s too mechanical. It presents all soul events within a compensatory system of pairs: mind and body, ego and world, spirit and instinct, conscious and unconscious, inner and outer, and so on interminably. But soul events are not part of a general balancing system or a polar energy system or a binary information system. Soul events are not parts of any system. They are not reactions and responses to other sorts of events at the opposite end of any fulcrum. They are independent of the tandems in which they are placed, inasmuch as there is an independent primacy of the imaginal that creates its fantasies autonomously, ceaselessly, spontaneously. Myth-making is not compensatory to anything else; nor is soul-making (Hillman, Re-Visioning 100).
Most of Hillman’s work was brought forth using the process of reversion. He tackled several notoriously difficult issues by deliteralizing and attempting to return the pathologized images back to their archetypal sources. I am thinking here of his book, Suicide and the Soul, where he mythologized the pathological image of wanting to die as a metaphor for the desire to put an end to one sort of existence, and the wish to begin another. In Dream and the Underworld, he dealt with the connection between dreams and death, plunging headlong into the source of dreams, the Underworld. Reversion was Hillman’s primary method for treating patients, for writing books, and most importantly, for soul-making.
Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology. New York: Harper, 1975.
Hillman, James. Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper, 1979.