Language embodies imagination; its diastole and systole, its expansion and constriction. Our proclivity for constricting imagination by turning everything into literal noun-things lives in grammar. To see how this plays out, let’s track how the phrase ‘the unconscious’ can open to imagination or turn what began as an experience into a thing. Some emerging psychological material appears as other than me while implicating me. This experience leads me to speak of ‘it.’ (Note that its reality is objective relative to a first-person subject). Whatever ‘it’ is it seems to have a life and intention of its own even to the point of seeming to oppose my own. If I choose to honor its intention and open to its significance, the intuition that it implicates me unfolds as its implications for me. What was far away has drawn close. What was foreign reveals itself as familiar. What was unconscious is now more conscious.
The story is not over. The process is ongoing and universal. Its persistence calls for a way of speaking–a shorthand reference that collects and recollects a rich experience. What is at play here? ‘The unconscious.’ If our proclamation remains rooted in the experience that birthed it, the phrase is a vital opening to imagination. If it claims the experience as integral to the heritage of our shared humanity, it lives as a name-image that gathers and invites the telling of a mythic tale.
If its noun-like countenance leads us to literalize, the term becomes a reductive concept hypostatized (treated as a thing). Literalizing represses the imaginal nature of this as-if, which closes off imagination. Literalizing coagulates our semantic remembrance into a thing. The phrase that opens to a mystery becomes a tool for mastery. The containing image becomes a known territory. Imagination opens to ‘what if’ and ‘what else;’ to possibility within the hospitable space of the image. Literalizing binds imagination for the sake of making a living reality hold still that we may grasp it. Held too tightly for too long, it is likely to leave us holding a dead husk while it is reborn as an autonomous complex that grips us with reciprocal force.
As an image ‘the unconscious’ holds enough to give us something to hold onto as something foreign and familiar emerges. It opens a space for conscious and unconscious to meet. And it stands as an open invitation to mythic imagination. Now we can imagine ‘it’ as a realm of psyche– a place where mysteries, the forgotten and the repressed dwell and from which they arise and call for remembrance. Now we can imagine the unconscious as a figure or host of figures who inhabit our dreams and waking lives, exert an influence and call for relationship, reconciliation and reckoning.
‘The unconscious’ can also invoke a style of consciousness collectively marginalized, forgotten or repressed–one rooted in myth, image, metaphor, symbol; in a word, imagination. When we speak in this genre of soul, language embodies imagination held and expansive, personal and collective.
Author’s P.S.: a connection to neuroses
When an image is literalized it is forced to operate unconsciously, which increases its influence and compromises our creative and existential freedom. From A Jungian Approach… : forced underground the image “can function like a neurosis, dominating consciousness as a stuck, repeating and relatively autonomous imaginal pattern–a pattern that shapes thinking, perception and behavior and whose source and meaning are obscured. (One of the characteristics of the literal is its repeatability without deterioration; it is consistent across subjects, more like computer memory than rumors.)”
Perhaps neuroses can be understood as constricted, repetitive imaginal patterns that are sustained by holding them tightly and forgetting their imaginal nature. Thus, caught in a neurosis, we take the imaginal literally. This preservative move is reinforced by three factors: the persistent pervasive power of the image, our conviction that our perception is real and the greater collective ontological status assigned to the literal. We experience the image in the neurosis as real-so real as to be literally real. Caught in a neurosis we speak literally and the image inhabits our speech.
Healing the neurosis is a work of anemnesis; of unforgetting the image by tending it as image in all its substantial reality. Meeting it on its own terms we experience its imaginal reality and are eventually free to imagine differently. Bringing the ways in which we are stuck to creative expression heals because to create is to be open the reality of the imaginal and allow it to work us over in the work. By honoring its relative autonomy and concretizing its objective existence we grant it a place and open a relational space. There we can soften our hardened intentions and perceptions and open ourselves to its intentions and imagination. Continuing the personification that has found its way into our language, a healing creative stance toward the image is one of imaginal empathy-of seeing through the eyes of the living image.
The therapist’s challenge is to catalyze this work by attending the images that inhabit the literalized speech of the patient; to unclench the literalizing of the images; to unforget, to play, to honor, to imagine, to empathize.