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The Animated World

Patrick Harpur

Photo by Caroline Forbes

An Interview with Patrick Harpur

Like many others, I was switched on to Patrick Harpur‘s writings in the ’90s through reading the subtly mind-blowing survey of Forteana and folklore, Daimonic Reality. Avoiding jargon, writing with vivid immediacy, he manages to bring immensely slippery concepts from the hidden traditions of Western religion—alchemy, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism—to bear on the wondrous oddities, such as UFOs and crop circles, of the modern world. It’s hard to recommend a better guide to the significance of the field.

His follow-up The Philosopher’s Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination is a bold, entertaining and illuminating survey that widens the focus of Daimonic Reality to take in more on shamanism, folklore and the anthropology of myth, but also mythical perspectives on Darwinism and modern cosmology, and excellent histories of Hermetic magic and Romanticism.

Both these non-fiction gems followed in the wake of the novel Mercurius, declared by The Literary Review to be “the most explicit account of the alchemical art ever published.” This gripping tale, which weaves philosophical and psychological reflections together with a brilliantly observed tale of alchemical experimentation, has just been reissued by The Squeeze Press (read my review here).

This interview, originally slated for Dreamflesh Journal, was conducted via email during 2007. Patrick is currently working on A Complete Guide to the Soul, to be published by Rider in 2009.

Gyrus: The threefold division of ‘body, soul & spirit’, as opposed to the dualistic mind/body model so common in our culture, seems central to your work. Could you sketch it briefly, and discuss how you feel “soul” has come to be distorted, misunderstood, or lost?

Patrick: You’ve started with the hardest possible question! I’ve just jotted down 14 ways in which the word ‘soul’ can be used, and there are many more. It’s impossible to define. But this flaw is also its strength. Like ‘God’, it’s a portmanteau word, ‘empty’ in itself, yet taking on meaning in different contexts and in relation to other things.

Soul in relation to body likes to personify itself as Jung’s anima, for instance, or as the personal daimon whom Plato describes in his myth of the geezer called Er who returns from the dead at the end of The Republic. It’s different from soul in relation to spirit, which is where I prefer to use the word as the Neoplatonists used it. For them, soul was a whole realm intermediate between the spiritual or intelligible world (nous) and our own familiar sensory, material world. It was Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World, wherein dwell the daimons who link us, as Socrates remarked, to the gods.

However, this all-pervading collective realm was paradoxical: it could also manifest individually, as individual souls—in other words, as us. Since the chief faculty of soul is not reason but imagination, it likes to imagine itself in many different ways, cutting its cloth to suit the times. Thus it re-imagines itself now as Imagination itself—a powerful autonomous realm beloved of the Romantics whence all the myths come—now as Jung’s collective unconscious. It supplies the root metaphor for such modern re-inventions as the earth-spirit Gaia and Sheldrake’s morphogenetic field.

But, in another sense, soul and spirit can be thought of as symbols of the two main perspectives through which we view the world—the two perspectives which create the world we see. We experience them as a tension within ourselves between the spiritual longing for Oneness, unity, purity, light, transcendence etc. and the imaginative need to recognise Manyness, multiplicity, labyrinthine entanglement, darkness, immanence etc. It’s because, historically—ever since the Enlightenment—Western culture has emphasised the preeminence of ‘masculine’ upward-striving Apollonian reason and science that I have tried to emphasise the neglected ‘soul’ perspective which is dark, moon-struck, downward-spiralling and Hermetic or Dionysian—the Affirmative way of the artist, as the medieval mystics might have put it, instead of their own Negative way, which disdains and seeks to overcome the images and myths which soul, willy-nilly, besieges us with and which we find so hard to free ourselves from in spiritual disciplines. The great ascents of the spirit into rareified mountain realms where the One dwells in blinding light can be read as a disastrous neglect, even repression, of the Nekiya—the underworld journey of the soul whose course is tortuous and mazy, moving towards darkness and death. That’s why, as far as any sort of gnosis goes, I prefer the soul’s way, death and resurrection, the painful initiatory dismembering of the shaman, to the rather unsexed and anodyne rebirth system of ‘spiritual’ paths.

I prefer, as Jung says, wholeness to perfection. That’s the short and incoherent answer to your question.

Gyrus: I was quite surprised when I learned that James Hillman had travelled quite widely, in Asia and Africa—his work is so consciously rooted in, and confined to, the Western tradition. You’re steeped in the same tradition, from Greek antiquity, through the Neoplatonists, to the Romantics and depth psychology; but you also freely draw inferences from anthropology, from animist traditional cultures. Have your own experiences while travelling led to this influence?

Patrick: Actually I’ve barely travelled at all—my daimon has always kept me tied to my desk, insisting that I travel metaphorically through the realm of imagination rather than literally… So, no—my influences are all from books. But I did hitch-hike round Africa with a mate in my gap year, when I was seventeen—when everyone else was travelling to India—and it did leave a deep impression on me. I constantly wondered what was going on in the minds of the Biafran refugees, or the Cameroonian villagers or the Masai or the Bushmen or the Ethiopians and so on.

I’m still trying to find the perfect work of anthropology, as it were—the book which gets inside the mind of wholly different culture from my own; which imaginatively empathises with its tribe rather than applying ‘scientific’ principles. I mean, how can you trust an anthropologist who can’t study witchcraft properly because he doesn’t believe in its possibility? I want anthropology to be like the works of Carlos Casteneda or that essay of Benjamin Whorf’s on the language of the Navajo or Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King.

Gyrus: How does the perception of deep problems in the “comparative” approach to religion and myth, exemplified by J.G. Frazer and Mircea Eliade, impact your thinking? What remaining value do you see in wide cross-cultural surveys of things like folklore and shamanism, the alleged dangers and past mistakes of this approach notwithstanding?

Patrick: That’s very pertinent and difficult to answer. I laugh at the idea of this approach being ‘dangerous’—it’s often what academics often call ideas which contradict their own. Who’s in danger? What’s more dangerous is the modern presupposition that all cultures are isolated and opaque to each other, and so studies are confined to details and minutiae, without any attempt to draw wider inferences about how different cultures can be compared, and whether or not they share a common humanity.

But if you believe that humanity is informed by a common imagination whose autonomous products, the myths, are, as Ted Hughes says, ‘as alike as the lines on the palm of the hand’, you see that no myth is truly alien to us, no matter how outlandish it appears at first sight. And if no myth is alien, no culture is. And if the contents of the myths seem strange, then Lévi-Strauss’s structural approach has been very useful in showing how the mythopoeic imagination obeys certain archetypal rules—rules of symmetry and inversion, for example—which illuminate myths by showing how one story, which looks wholly different from its neighbour, is in fact a transformed version of that neighbouring tale. This is how I hit upon the notion that the tall tales of modern science concerning black holes and dark matter and the abyss of space etc. are in fact only literalised versions of those Gnostic myths which were suppressed by orthodox Christianity 1500-odd years ago.

So, while I sometimes despair of ever understanding a single thing about another culture, I also rejoice in how much of that culture is in fact available to me through our common imaginative substrate. Incidentally, it was my elaboration of what I call ‘daimonic reality’—a version of Jung’s ‘psychic reality’—which proved the most useful tool in understanding that relationship with the world which ‘tribal’ peoples seem universally to have, and which we Westerners used to have: a reality which lies between the literal and metaphorical, which has one foot in the Otherworld, which obeys Blake’s ‘double vision’ (something shared by all artists), which is participatory rather than objective, and so on. I’d call myself an animist if that weren’t already a rather insulting term for one who has a clear vision of how everything that is, is ensouled and participates in that great World-Soul whose images constitute the flagstones of reality which underlie this poor phenomenal world of ours. And this is how ‘tribal’ people see the world: they’re natural Neoplatonists.

And of course Eliade et al. may be wrong in certain details; but the impulse is, surely, invigorating and engaging in a way that most mythography and anthropology isn’t—we suffer loss of meaning, even a loss of soul as benighted primitives say, when we lack an overarching world-view, a sense of a bigger picture from which no culture is excluded, don’t we? (Frazer was, by the way, very different from Eliade—he literalised one ‘solar hero’ myth and sought to explain most other myths by recourse to it. In this he was more like a Darwinist than a comparative mythographer).

While I appreciate the agonising of post-colonial, post-imperial, post-modern critics, I just can’t interest myself in it. It’s a fault, I know. But my deepest impulses are religious, I think. I’m a Christian, for instance; but I don’t like other Christians much. That’s why I was so happy to find my own people among the Christian Neoplatonists (who are also pagan!) such as the alchemists, the Renaissance magi, the Romantic poets. A religion or religious perspective, at once Christian and pagan, such as they held, seems just what’s needed in our times of Christian and Scientistic fundamentalism. I’d like to propagandise it more; but unfortunately it can’t of its nature be subjected to the tools of propaganda because it’s subtle, humorous, tricky etc, and has to be just seen, like a joke or a dream, to be grasped. It’s the opposite of fundamentalism because it sees the root metaphors or myths behind every belief, including itself!

Gyrus: Is there not a hint, at least, of the unifying ‘spiritual’ urge in looking for a “common humanity”—with current academia, perhaps ironically, serving ‘soul’ in its desire to retain distinctions, to emphasize particular characteristics of specific cultures, to champion multiplicity?

Patrick: Yes. And yes.

Gyrus: In your work you make very lucid, revealing comparisons between tribal initiatory structures and spontaneous modern experiences such as UFO abductions. Could you discuss these associations and what fascinates you about them?

Patrick: Yeah, the Attack of the Little Grey Men. Wasn’t that interesting folklore? With all the requisite memorates and fabulates, as those annoying folklorists with their quasi-scientific jargon call them…

Like anyone fascinated by UFOlore, I racked my brains to come up with some sort of reason why 80% of all Americans (it seemed at the time) were being snatched into circular uniformly-lit ‘spaceships’ and subjected to bestial probings by those truly frightening little greys with their now-iconic all-black eyes (the cover of Whitley Streiber’s book [Communion] still gives me the willies).

One of the theories I liked was that they were the demonic spirits of the millions of aborted foetuses getting their revenge! But it just seemed to me that what these abductions most resembled was the painful initiation of shamans by daimons, and, indeed, the imitative initiation of pubescent boys who are abducted at dead of night by masked elders posing as daimons, and subjected to scarring and circumcision etc. before being given secret knowledge. I was also struck by a remark of Jung’s—that the unconscious shows to us the face that we show to it. And I wondered if the ‘greys’ were probing us in a heartless empirical way in some parody of the way we investigate Nature.

Anyway, there is no ‘explanation’ for the widespread abduction epidemic—it is not a problem to be solved but rather a mystery to be entered—but I gave it my best shot vis-a-vis finding anthropological and Jungian parallels. While I liked the late John Mack, the Harvard Professor who researched abductions, I didn’t like the way his latest book seemed to ‘work’ with abductees, hypnotising them etc., until the ‘greys’ became sort of relatively benign harbingers of, yes, you guessed it, the imminent ecological crisis—thus effectively repressing the idea that unless we find news ways of initiating ourselves into the Otherworld, we run the risk of being forcibly initiated, against our will, by daimons who have become apparently demonic by virture of our neglect of them.

Gyrus: What is your fantasy for more conscious initiatory rituals in our society—or do you think society is now too unwieldy to manage like this, and true initiations will now continue to be emergent phenomena?

Patrick: I wouldn’t be surprised if the need for initiation has become urgent. It seems to be, after all, a universal requisite—there’s no society which doesn’t or which didn’t at one time attach the highest importance to initiation. So, now that we’ve abandoned formal rites, we must expect to pay the price: a catastrophic severance of relations with the Otherworld, for example, and a lack of certainty about identity and adulthood among youth.

Luckily youth has its own means of self-initiation—drugs, piercings, raves, Mediterranean ‘holidays’ etc.—but these can all of course be merely destructive if they are not performed in a sacred context, the ritual pain succeeded by revelations of the tribal secrets and myths. I think children probably long for initiation if reality TV is any guide: whenever they’re subjected to real hardship in a meaningful context—Brat Camp etc.!—they respond gratefully.

I can’t think what religion is doing, adopting secular liberal caring values where everything must be comfortable and all suffering is medicalised. The whole point of religion is not to provide a cure for suffering but, as Simone Weil says, a supernatural use for it. Only suffering can provide the deep energy required for self-transformation. (Luckily, once again, there’s often enough suffering to go round in the course of everyday life—illness, bereavment, unhappiness in love, whatever—but it’s usually treated when it could instead be pressed into the service of initiation.)

But I’m beginning to rant now. It’s just that i’m furious at the deprivation of meaning, enchantment and transformation that young people suffer at the hands of our culture.

Gyrus: What were your most significant initiations into your relationship to daimonic reality?

Patrick: Well, you know, I was brought up believing in Spiritualism because my grandmother was a first-class medium and my mother a believer, who, wherever she lived, always managed to dig up a local medium / healer to talk to the dead or cure us kids of our childish malaises.

Meanwhile I was very aware of my Dad’s psychic powers, which he played down, even denied, having made of himself a hard-headed business man. But he saw the fairies twice as a young man in his native Ireland—all the more surprising because he was Anglo-Irish, the son of a Church of Ireland rector, who was not supposed to see or believe in the Sidhe.

So I grew up with the supernatural and, instead of forgetting or rubbishing it all once I was exposed to education, I always tried to fit it in—ultimately this meant writing my own book. I was lucky at Cambridge to be supervised by the great Shakespeare and Yeats scholar, Tom Henn, who was another Anglo-Irishman. He, too, believed in the supernatural—he experienced Panic while fishing a stream in Galway, and heard the banshee keening on a train to Birmingham (his brother died at that moment)—and he showed me rare books from the Order of the Golden Dawn, and generally encouraged me to use my beliefs, as Yeats had, to make sense of the world.

However, my real initiation didn’t come until I immersed myself in alchemy for my book, Mercurius; or, the Marriage of Heaven and Earth. I thought I could crack alchemy in three months, but, three years later, I lifted my half-crazed, tear-stained face up off the nth Latin manuscript in the British Library and realised I’d never ‘crack’ it. For every book about alchemy perforce becomes a book of alchemy, and I had felt the hand of Mercurius move my hand and what I wrote didn’t come from me—I felt the centre of my volition shift and I was no longer myself. This, I suppose, is the central prerequisite of initiation: the awful uprooting as the Muse, or personal daimon, or self, ruthlessly seizes you and usurps the ego. From then on, I had a new topsy-turvy and Hermetic perspective on things, out of which I wrote Daimonic Reality and The Philosophers’ Secret Fire.

Gyrus: To apply Jung to his own lineage, what do you see as the Shadow side of the tradition of alchemy and Neoplatonism that you subscribe to? How do you relate to it?

Patrick: Your question is a difficult one. It may be an incoherent one. I don’t know that I can answer it.

I want to say that alchemy and Hermetico-neoplatonism (if such a thing exists) is itself the turbulent mercurial underground stream which shadows the orderly canals of religion and reason, welling up in times of transition and crisis to form the flood of culture we have called the Renaissance or Romanticism. That’s to say, in itself, the ‘perennial philosophy’ I favour includes its own shadow, like the Nigredo of the alchemists. That’s part of its great attraction: it is concerned with wholeness and with realising the totality of the psyche; it holds the great dividing forces within psychic life—forces I’ve called ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ (tho’, pace Nietszche, Apollonian and Dionysian would do)—holds them in tension so that nothing is repressed and no shadow forms.

I think Jung said that Christ redeemed mankind but left out Nature, which groaneth and travaileth. Nature is therefore Christianity’s shadow. It was part of the alchemists’ (unconscious) purpose to complete the work of redemption by raising up Nature. But in a sense this is no more than poetry does—there’s something redemptive about all great poetry, isn’t there? Poetry, like alchemy, doesn’t merely copy Nature (as Plato feared), but (as Plotinus says) completes the work of the Creator by returning to the original archai or archetypes which the Demiurge looked into in order to make the world.

The whole point of a daimonic philosophy (to put it another way) is that it doesn’t subscribe to the brilliant Apollonic lighting effects of monotheism and, later, rationalism which are themselves intrinsically shadow-forming—soul is always neglected and forced into the darkness underground. Rather it operates in lunatic twilight, between the light and the dark, where it is half light and half shadow, and so the problem of ‘the shadow’ is not so much resolved as dissolved altogether…

Sorry, gone off the point a bit. Or have I?

Gyrus: I get the idea of this hidden tradition “containing its own shadow”. But surely there’s a shadow that’s missed by everything that can be called a “tradition”. With alchemy and Neoplatonism, I wonder if social concerns, engagement with communal politics and so on, the whole quotidian world of people and their mundane necessities—isn’t this neglected by most exponents of the tradition? Maybe Blake manages to transcend even that… But the modern occult / hermetic “scene” can be woefully insular. And I look at the arc of James Hillman’s work, and it seems his merging of the concepts of Anima Mundi with things like urban architecture and environmental concerns came quite late in his career, like the “real world” out there was the last bastion. Of course he had his Neoplatonic take on it—that we repress beauty, and our environment suffers from this…

Patrick: Yes, I take your point about there always having to be a shadow of some sort—in the case of the Neoplatonic tradition, the quotidian world etc. I don’t know, but I always thought that that was something those guys took in their stride. When you read Porphyry’s life of Plotinus, you don’t get the sense that he was in any way sealed off from the world or sitting, Hindu-like and silent, in a sacred grove, or living in an academic ivory tower etc. Rather the reverse—like most mytics worth their salt, he seems to have been embedded in life and as pragmatic as St Teresa, who achieved union with the Godhead only to burst out of the convent and found many more, her letters full of practicality and worldly advice.

I dare say periods of retreat were necessary for the Hermetic lads, during stages of their advancement—as it is for us all. But I think they attended to God’s immanence in the world, and hence to the world, just as much as to His transcendent aspect. They had both perspectives, and held that contradiction in tension by means of Blakean ‘double vision’.

On the other hand, I’m only guessing. But I’m probably, as so often, right.