Image is Soul

Image is Soul

Treasure of the World, by Nicholas Roerich

The datum with which archetypal psychology begins is the image. (Hillman 114-115)

In this article, I will pursue the idea that image must be treated phenomenologically. First of all, we need a working understanding of the word, “image.” The way James Hillman uses it in the opening quotation  is not the way we usually understand it. We think of an image as a picture, a photograph, or maybe a fleeting impression in our mind’s eye. This is what Henry Corbin would call “imaginary.” Jung would refer to this as “fantasy.” Image, as Hillman describes it, is a product of the “self-generative activity of the soul itself (Hillman 118). This is not a picture of something you have seen before that came to you via your physical senses. It is also not something you have constructed in your mind “that represents in symbolic form certain ideas and feelings it expresses” (ibid.). Images don’t  refer to anything, according to Hillman. “They are the psyche itself in its imaginative visibility; as primary datum, image is irreducible” (ibid.). Jung said, “image is psyche” (qtd. in Hillman 113) and he equated “psyche” with “soul.” So, both Jung and Hillman are saying image is, in essence, the soul itself. The soul is primary to all that exists. All that we experience empirically, and all that we know comes to us from soul as image. It is how we respond to the image that matters most.

Image does not have to be experienced with the physical eyes, or heard with the physical ears via a poetry recitation or a piece of music. Hillman believes “such notions of “visibility” tend to literalize images as distinct events presented to the senses” (Hillman 125). He then goes on to paraphrase American philosopher, Edward S. Casey: “an image is not what one sees, but the way in which one sees” (ibid.). So, image as soul means the manner in which we see.

An image is given by the imagining perspective, and can only be perceived by an act of imagining (ibid.). 

Dr. Mary Watkins, currently chair of the Depth Psychology Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute, wrote in 1981 of the “autocthonous quality of images as independent of the subjective, perceiving imagination” (Hillman 125). As awareness of the imagination grows, one eventually recognizes that “images are independent of subjectivity and even of the imagination itself as a mental activity” (ibid.). When you have a dream, you do not choose the images that appear. They arise of their own accord; they are independent. With this understanding, one realizes that “the mind is in the imagination rather than the imagination in the mind” (Hillman 131). With this view of images, one realizes that our human imagination is not their source. They originate in the soul/imaginal world, and are a “sui generis activity of soul in independent presentation of its bare nature” (Hillman 138). For this reason, to attempt to control the images in any way, such as in dream interpretation, or guided visualization, goes against the purposes of the soul (see my article, Dreams and Literalism).

The crucial point is how we respond to images. If we take the route of trying to control them, we rely solely on our human capacities, which, of course, are nothing without the soul. If we respond with a metaphorical/imaginative  approach, we allow the “deepening and elaboration of the image” (Hillman 145-151). Taking the control route forces the image into “more naive, shallow, or fixedly dogmatic significance” (Hillman 151). This why fundamentalist religion, as an example of extreme literalizing, is always wrong, and eventually results in total disaster.

Henry Corbin, (who coined the term, imaginal, to refer to the living world of imagery), asks the question,

…would all this be possible without the absolutely primary and irreducible, objective, initial fact (Urphanomen) of a world of image-archetypes or image-sources whose origin is nonrational and whose incursion into our world is unforeseeable, but whose postulate compels recognition? (Corbin, Mundus).

This is the Land of Nowhere, the Mundus Imaginalis, the metaxical region between spirit and matter, the realm of Soul.


Works Cited

Corbin, Henry. “Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal,” in Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam, trans. Leonard Fox (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1995).

Hillman, James. Archetypal Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman Book 1). Spring Publications, 2015.+ Kindle Edition.

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