For Love of the Imagination

The following article by Michael Vannoy Adams is the first chapter in Joseph Reppen (ed.), Why I Became a Psychotherapist (Northvale, NJ, and London: Jason Aronson, 1998), pp. 1-14.

The Imagination is not a State; it is the Human Existence itself. — William Blake

I became a psychotherapist because I so love the imagination. For me, psychotherapy is essentially an affair of images, of how people imagine - and reimagine - "self," "others" (whether they be external others or internal others), and "world." I have recently published The Multicultural Imagination: "Race," Color, and the Unconscious (Adams 1996b), in which I discuss what I call the "fantasy principle." I regard the fantasy principle as more fundamental than either the pleasure principle or the reality principle. Although in particular that book addresses the "raciality" of the unconscious and engages the issue of "colorism" between whites and blacks, what interests me in general is the imagination.

Why I became a psychotherapist is inseparable from what kind of psychotherapist I became. I esteem all of the different schools of psychoanalytic thought: the original three schools (the Freudian, Adlerian, and Jungian), as well as all of the subsequent schools (among them the Kleinian, Kohutian, and Lacanian). I have a particular interest in the Jungian school - and in the post-Jungian, "Hillmanian" school of imaginal (or archetypal) psychology that James Hillman has elaborated (Adams 1997a). Jungian analysis interests me because it emphasizes the imagination more than the other schools do. Psychoanalysis - especially Jungian analysis - has enabled me to return to the imagination.

To "return" to something, one must have "left" something. In a certain sense, I left the imagination. In another sense, however, it was not I who left the imagination (nor was it the imagination than left me). Rather, the imagination was left - left behind me for several years. According to Richard Kearney (1988), the imagination may be leaving us all, not temporarily but permanently. In the postmodern period, he says, we may be witnessing the death of imagination and attending, if not the funeral, at least a wake. There may be such a general trend, but it is a quite particular experience that I wish to emphasize. Mary Watkins, who has described the many varieties of imaginal techniques in use historically in European and American psychology (1984) and who has recently championed the importance of what she calls "imaginal dialogues" (1986), criticizes certain psychologists (among them Piaget, Vygotsky, and Mead) for undervaluing or even devaluing the imagination. For such psychologists, the imagination is a developmental stage that we should grow out of as we grow into adulthood. For them, the imagination is merely a "phase" of childhood.

I grew up as a child in a small town in Texas. I was an only child until the age of 9 when my father and mother - 57 and 51 years old at the time - adopted my brother and sister, two Korean-American war orphans, ages 4 and 5. For my parents, for my family, that was a supremely imaginative (or reimaginative) multicultural act. Before that, however, as an only child, I had experienced nine years of what a Jungian might call introversion. I do not mean that I was oblivious to external reality in some schizoid sense or that, like Jung (1963), I had a public "No. 1" personality and a private "No. 2" personality in any radically dichotomous sense. Nor do I mean that I had an imaginary companion or an imaginary world - what David Cohen and Stephen A. MacKeith (1991) call, after Robert Silvey, who collected many elaborate examples of such worlds, a "paracosm." I merely had an opportunity to develop an internal, imaginal reality in relation to external reality. Others have had the same or a similar experience; I was hardly unique. As an only child, I was sometimes a lonely child, but I also developed the capacity to be alone without feeling lonely, as well as a respect for the necessity of privacy, even secrecy, and I appreciated what Anthony Storr (1988) calls the virtues of solitude, for it provided me with an occasion to imagine.

I had time and space by myself as a child to indulge in what Gaston Bachelard (1969) calls "reverie." My father and mother had moved a big, old house onto ten acres where one of my grandfathers earlier in the century had once had a business that he advertised, true or not, as the largest nursery in northeast Texas. On either side of that land were streets with houses in 1950s suburban style, but those ten acres were, for me, a quite separate reality, which I called "the field." Other children had yards; I had a field. In a sense, it was a field of daydreams, a field for my imagination - a field with black soil, red and yellow roses, purple irises, and white gardenias (that most fragrant flower, my father's favorite), and apple, pear, and peach trees. In that field I played for hours on end by myself, alone with my imagination.

If nature was outside, art was inside. In the house I played in a room next to my mother's studio, where she drew in charcoal and pastel and painted in oil, where she glazed clay and enameled metal and baked her creations in a kiln. There was also the farm of my other grandfather: eighty acres that a railroad and a highway divided into three parts, a house with two fireplaces (one a hearth in the kitchen, where my six-foot, four-inch grandfather would warm his back while he ate his cornbread after he had dipped it in his buttermilk), a barn (where I learned to handle the udders of cows and to squirt a stream straight into the mouths of cats at a considerable distance), horses, hogs, chickens, and dogs. Jung (1927/1931) says that "the chthonic portion of the psyche" - the aspect "through which the psyche is attached to nature, or in which its link with the earth and the world appears at its most tangible" (p. 31) - grounds life in the most transparent way in archetypal images. In my experience as a child, it was not only nature - earth, plants, and animals - but also art that archetypalized my imagination. My imaginal reality was a combination of the chthonic and the aesthetic dimensions: my grandfathers' and father's world and my mother's world.

For me, the imagination was not left behind abruptly. If I were to attempt to date the experience, I would say that it occurred over the years between 13 and 21. In a sense, the process seems to me to have been quite normal - it just happened. I do not believe, however, that it was inevitable, nor do I believe that it was developmentally desirable, as if the imagination was merely one of those childish things that I needed to put behind me. Someone else might simply regard those years as a period of necessary extraversion, or socialization. It is difficult for me to do so, however, because I sensed that I missed something, I intuited that I had lost something, perhaps irretrievably. What exactly I had lost, what precisely I missed, I would have been hard put to say, but I now know that it was the imagination.

School and university did not, at least for me, validate the imagination. Educationally, the imagination was not of much visible value. In that context, I resorted to journalism. I edited school and university newspapers, I majored in journalism, and I worked as a summer intern reporter on the Washington Post and the Atlanta Constitution. I became preoccupied with the external political reality of current events, especially civil rights and the Vietnam War. Then something happened that was to transform me irreversibly. I discovered psychoanalysis, I discovered Freud - I began to rediscover the imagination. In retrospect, I realize that an interest in external political reality can also be a very serious expression of the imagination - as Andrew Samuels (1993) notes, there is not only political imagery but also "a politics of imagery" (p. 14) - but at the time I did not experience it as such. The year was that year of years, 1968. As a Flower Powerist and New Leftist, I read Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud and Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. Marcuse and Brown impressed me because they both, although in different ways, called for an end to repression.

My girlfriend at the time was majoring in psychology. She had a prior interest in psychoanalysis and Freud. She was writing a senior honors essay on Freud and the scientific method, attempting to demonstrate that, methodologically, Freud had been a scientist. We engaged in intense discussions about psychoanalysis - I citing Marcuse and Brown, she citing Freud. She was extremely critical of the way that Marcuse and Brown used the word repression and insisted that they were not using it in the same technical sense that Freud used it. She challenged me to read Freud in the original, in the Strachey translation, as she had already done. I began to do so. Reading Freud was a revelation. I had never before encountered a system of ideas of such vast imaginative proportions. Freud so impressed me that a year later, when my girlfriend and I flew to England to backpack across Europe, our very first stop in London was the Hogarth Press, where, with my meager undergraduate savings, I proudly ordered a set of the Standard Edition, to be shipped to America to await my return at the end of our travels. Since then, I have never been without those twenty-four volumes; they have accompanied me to England for three years and to India for a year.

Freud (cardboard) and Adams
"Freud" and Adams in London in 1988

At the time, I was still seriously contemplating a career in journalism. While working as a summer intern reporter on newspapers, however, I had gradually begun to feel that journalism was not the life for me. The emphasis on current events began to seem superficial: too much surface and not enough depth. I now know that it was not journalism that was superficial; it was I who was superficial. I needed more depth. My recent experience with psychoanalysis had led me to believe that ideas were deeper than events. I decided to go to graduate school; I enrolled in the American Civilization program at the University of Texas at Austin.

In my very first semester in that program, I took two courses - "Psychoanalysis in America" and "Herman Melville" - that profoundly influenced me. The two courses were a fortuitous combination. I had never read any of Melville's works, but as I began to do so I discovered that there was a great deal of psychoanalytic literary criticism on his works - especially on Moby-Dick and on Pierre, the novel in which Melville, like Freud, emphasizes "the two most horrible crimes . . . possible to civilized humanity - incest and parricide" (1852, p. 351). I also discovered that one of those who had written psychoanalytic literary criticism on Melville was Henry A. Murray, the Harvard psychologist who (in collaboration with Christiana Morgan) had developed the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). One of the inspirations for the TAT was evidently Murray's reading of the "Doubloon" chapter in Moby-Dick, where Melville describes the various interpretations of the gold coin by Captain Ahab and the other sailors as, in effect, a projective test. As one of the sailors says of the attempts to interpret the doubloon: "There's another rendering now; but still one text" (1851, p. 434). Another, equally important source for the TAT was Morgan's artistic renditions of her fantasies, or "visions," which Jung employed in seminars to illustrate the technique of active imagination (Douglas 1993, Jung 1997).

The immediate consequence, for me, was that I began to entertain the possibility that I might become a psychoanalytic literary critic. I also began to perceive (or, more accurately, to project) sexual symbolism everywhere in Melville's works. This interest of mine made a certain impression on Jay Leyda, the eminent literary, music, and film scholar. Leyda, who had edited The Melville Log, two magnificent volumes of biographical documents, visited the University of Texas while I was a graduate student there. We had lunch, during which I waxed enthusiastic about my interest in Melville and in sexual symbolism. The next year, Leyda (1973) published an essay, "Herman Melville, 1972," in which he reflected on the then current state of scholarly and critical work on Melville. He lamented that "the art of Herman Melville has been reduced from discovery to a reading assignment" (p. 163). According to Leyda, the study of Melville was now merely an academic exercise:

What we once read for joy has been transformed into a "subject," or rather an object for criticism and interpretation. The man who wrote these works has been pushed aside (again!) by well-meaning persons who tell us what the words really mean - so that there's not much room for either man or works. Critical microscopes are brought into play, but I'm no longer sure for what purpose. (p. 163)

Whom, exactly, did Leyda have in mind? As I read the essay, I was chagrined to realize that he had me in mind. What, he wondered, is the advantage of "a close, a very close hunt for the sexual puns" (p. 163) in Melville's works? "Is it to learn more about its author than we knew before? Or to draw attention to the ingenuity of the interpreter?" Leyda even gave me a funny name: "the hunting inspector" (pp. 163-164). My critical microscope was, of course, psychoanalysis.

In the meantime, I was awarded a Marshall scholarship (comparable to a Rhodes scholarship but granted by the British Parliament in commemoration of the Marshall Aid Plan for Europe after World War II) to pursue doctoral research at the University of Sussex in England. I proposed to write a psychoanalytic dissertation on - what else? - the sexual symbolism in Melville's works. I spent much of the next three years in the library of the British Museum, at a desk under the dome of the reading room (I felt as if I were sitting inside a beautiful blue eggshell). I tried to read every book on symbolism that Melville might have read. Many of these books were late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century works in what we would now call comparative mythology. The more I read, the more I began to suspect that my psychoanalytic approach to Melville was woefully na´ve. As I discovered in those works of comparative mythology the sources of much of Melville's symbolism in Moby-Dick, I realized that the symbolism was not, in any psychoanalytic sense, unconscious. I began to appreciate Melville as a literary "psychologist" who had imaginatively adapted symbolism from works in comparative mythology to serve his own, quite conscious purposes. I finally decided that psychoanalysis had less to say about Melville than Melville had to say about psychoanalysis. In the process, I also inadvertently became less Freudian and more Jungian. I did not conclude that the source of Melville's symbolism was the collective unconscious, but I did believe that the source was comparative mythology of the sort that so fascinated Jung in, for example, Symbols of Transformation. Methodologically, Melville was a Jungian - or Jung was a Melvillian.

Adams at age 4, with whale
Adams at age four on his first whaling voyage, 20 years before he began writing his doctoral dissertation on Moby-Dick

One morning while reading the London Times, I came across an article on the poet and Blake scholar Kathleen Raine. I had never heard of her, but something about the article made me feel that her own work on William Blake might have something to do with my work on Melville. I wrote a letter to the author of the article, and he forwarded my letter to Raine. Shortly I received an invitation to visit her in London. Raine served me tea and scones with double cream and fruit preserves. In her I discovered a kindred spirit who graciously befriended me. On the walls of her house were wonderful engravings by Blake. She showed me other possessions: Yeats's fountain pen, his ESP cards, and his poltergeist photographs. Then and on many occasions afterward, we talked about Blake and Melville and the fact that they had both used many of the same sources in comparative mythology. Raine's psychoanalytic sympathies were, as mine had become, Jungian, although, like me, she did not regard either Blake or Melville as unconscious in any psychoanalytic sense. In her major work, Blake and Tradition, she had demonstrated that Blake had imaginatively adapted traditional symbolism. My own research had become, in effect, a study of Melville and tradition.

On one of my visits to Raine, she suddenly said to me that on my return to America I must meet a Jungian analyst by the name of James Hillman. I had never heard of Hillman, and it was several years before I met him. By then, I had begun to read the books that he had written - among them, Re-Visioning Psychology, The Myth of Analysis, and The Dream and the Underworld. As I write this essay, Hillman's newest book, The Soul's Code, is at the top of the New York Times's nonfiction bestseller list. "Soul" sells, as Thomas Moore, a popularizer of Hillman's ideas, has amply demonstrated in recent years with Care of the Soul and Soul-Mates. What so interested me about Hillman, however, was not his psychology of the soul but his psychology of the image. In those earlier books, the emphasis was on the imagination. He might be "working toward a psychology of soul," but it was, as he declared, "based on a psychology of image" (1975, p. xi). Here, finally, was a psychoanalyst for whom the imagination was primary and constitutive of internal reality, not secondary and derivative from external reality.

Through the cumulative influence of Marcuse, Brown, Freud, Melville, Jung, Raine, Blake, and Hillman, I finally returned, full circle (or perhaps full spiral), to the imagination. After graduate school, I did become a psychoanalytic literary critic for fifteen years. Then I moved to New York, where I accepted a position as associate provost of the New School for Social Research [now the New School University] and entered psychotherapy with a Jungian analyst, the first of three with whom I have worked over the years. Eventually, I earned a clinical social work degree at New York University. When the New School established a master's degree in Psychoanalytic Studies, I served as director of that program for three years. I now have a private practice as a psychotherapist with a special interest in Jungian and post-Jungian theories and methods.

The practice of psychotherapy is, for me, an analysis of how people have imagined - and how they might reimagine - self, others, and world. This is what I mean by the fantasy principle. I consider it a great privilege to be a psychotherapist. To be a psychotherapist is to be privy to the imagination of others. I feel honored and humbled to be in the presence of someone who shares with me, confides in me, what he or she imagines. I am fascinated by the imagination, whether it be beautiful or ugly, happy or sad, complex or simple, comic or tragic - or, from the perspective of psychopathology, healthy or sick. To me, the discovery that internal reality, psychical reality - or imaginal reality - is just as real as any external reality is the most important discovery of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis does not quite assert that, as Blake insists, "Mental Things are alone Real" (1810, p. 617), but it does contend that what I call the psychical construction of reality (or the imaginal construction of reality) is the basic issue in psychotherapy. "The psyche creates reality every day," Jung says. "The only expression I can use for this activity is fantasy" (1921, p. 52). How does someone construct reality imaginally? What images does someone employ, consciously or unconsciously? What is the internal, imaginal experience of external events? These are the questions that I, as a psychotherapist, ask and attempt to answer. When Jung first began to work as a young psychiatrist at the Burgholzli Mental Hospital in Zurich, what astonished him was that nobody "concerned himself with the meaning of fantasies, or thought to ask why this patient had one kind of fantasy, another an altogether different one" (1963, p. 127).

The reason that I am a Jungian rather than a Freudian is that it seems to me that Freud wants to rectify the imagination - to require what I call the fantasy principle to conform to what he calls the reality principle. For me, Freud is ultimately too much of a realist and not enough of an imagist. Freud proposes a distortion theory of the imagination. According to him, the function of fantasy is to distort reality. The images in a dream, for example, are mere manifest appearances, distortive derivatives of a latent reality. They are not what they seem to be or seem to mean. From that perspective, the purpose of psychoanalysis is to expose the distortion, identify the derivation, and provide a rectification of the fantasy in strict accordance with reality.

In contrast, it seems to me that Jung wants to explore the imagination without prejudice. As Jung says:

It is true that there are unprofitable, futile, morbid, and unsatisfying fantasies whose sterile nature is immediately recognize by every person endowed with common sense; but the faulty performance proves nothing against the normal performance. All the works of man have their origin in creative imagination. What right, then, do we have to disparage fantasy? (1931, p. 45)

For Jung, the purpose of psychoanalysis is, as Blake says, "Conversing with Eternal Realities as they Exist in the Human Imagination" (1810, p. 613) - or, in Jungian terminology, dialoguing with archetypal realities that exist in fantasy. According to Jung, the images in a dream - or in active imagination - are exactly what they seem to be or seem to mean. He proposes a precision theory of the imagination. "Precision means whatever is actually presented," Hillman says. "Simply: the actual qualities of the image" (1977, p. 69). The unconscious, Jung argues, is incredibly precise in the selection of qualitatively apt images to epitomize psychical reality. It is difficult to interpret psychical reality not because some censor distorts, or encrypts, reality in a code that we then have to decipher, but simply because the unconscious, like some poet, communicates in images with which we are only more or less familiar. We do not have to translate these images; we have to define them. We have to explicate all that a specific image implies. The imagination is, in this sense, what the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi (1966) (who also befriended me in Texas and later in England) calls a "tacit dimension," or what the physicist David Bohm (1981) calls an "implicate order." Jungian analysis employs a phenomenological (or "essentialist") method. It inquires into the essential being or meaning of images, the fundamental phenomena of psychical reality. From a Jungian perspective, the unconscious does not so much conceal as it reveals. What an image is or means is not hidden from us, as if there were some deceptive intent; it is simply unknown to us, because we have not mastered the poetic, or imagistic, language that the unconscious employs.

I marvel at the compositional autonomy of the imagination. When and how does this compositional process occur? Are our dreams gradually composed during the day while we are awake, or are the instantaneously composed during the night while we are asleep? Are our dreams born, like Athena, full-blown from our heads? In a sense, we do not dream - we are dreamed. We do not compose our dreams; some autonomous process, which for lack of a better word we call the imagination or the unconscious (we used to call it "god"), composes our dreams. Rather than a supernaturalistic, metaphysical account of this process, psychoanalysis offers a naturalistic, metapsychological account - as if that were an adequate, scientific explanation. Similarly, do we fantasize, or are we fantasized?

The ingenuity of the imagination - or the unconscious - never ceases to amaze me. Someone - for example, a woman - tells me a dream, and that dream tells me precisely (and often incredibly concisely) who she imagines she is. Dreams present self-images, other-images, and world-images: what Jung calls "imagos." "Someone shoots the president," the dreamer reports. "Then there is chaos." Immediately, I know that there exists in the psychical reality of the dreamer a would-be assassin who shoots the president. Who is this president? Or, phenomenologically, what is a president, what is the essence of "president?" A president is not a dictator who dictates in an authoritarian mode; a president presides in a democratic mode. A president is the head of the executive branch of a government. What the dreamer imagines - or what the unconscious of the dreamer images to her - is an assassination attempt on the executive function of the psyche. The imaginal assassin shoots (the dream does not say that he kills) an imaginal president. The psyche experiences the attempt as chaotic - and potentially fatal to the executive function. What does this dream have to do with the dreamer? In this instance, the dream has to do with what I might call the mind-body politic of the dreamer. It has to do not only with her psychical reality but also with her physical reality. The images in this dream immediately evoked in the dreamer a spontaneous association to an injury that she had previously suffered to her spinal column in an automobile accident. A physician had prescribed a brace, but for reasons of vanity (or, if one prefers, narcissism) the dreamer had ignored or neglected - one might justifiably say "repressed" - the prescription, with the result that her condition had deteriorated. The images in the dream enabled the dreamer to appreciate that one aspect of her psyche, a vanity function, was, in effect, attempting to assassinate another aspect, the executive function, the central nervous system in the spinal column. The dream was not a distortive image of this psychophysical "political" reality; on the contrary, it was a very precise image of it.

Although it is true that the dream did not literally image the condition of the dreamer, this fact does not mean that the imagination distorted that reality, as if it intended to deceive the dreamer. The dream metaphorically imaged the mind-body state of the dreamer, and it did so accurately, with scrupulously elegant exactitude. Jung says that the "obscurity" of the dream is not a distortion but "is really only a projection of our own lack of understanding." If a dream seems "unintelligible," it seems so "simply because we cannot read it." According to Jung, we must "learn to read it," and in order to do so we must "stick as close as possible to the dream images" (1934, p. 149). It is apparently from this specific passage that the Jungian analyst Rafael Lopez-Pedraza derives inspiration for the dictum "stick to the image," which Hillman emphasizes as the basic principle of imaginal psychology. Hillman admonishes us to "'stick to the image' in its precise presentation" (1977, p. 68). From this perspective, the language of the unconscious consists of exquisitely precise images that serve a metaphorical purpose (Adams 1996a, 1997b). Not only Jungians but also at least some contemporary Freudians appreciate that, as Arnold H. Modell says, metaphor is the very "currency" of the psyche (1990, p. 64). In short, as psychotherapists, we need to learn the language of metaphor.

I thus practice what I would call psychotherapy of the imagination. Whether the images emerge in dreams, in active imagination, or in the psychotherapeutic dialogue, I address them in one and the same way. (Even reports of experiences of real external events are what I would call "the imagination of everyday life," for what is ultimately important is not the literal, objective event but the subjective, metaphorical experience of that event.) I believe that everyone fantasizes continuously, that fantasy suffuses reality pervasively. Psychotherapy is an occasion for me and someone else to explore the imagination together. It is an opportunity for us to appreciate that fantasy is a reality just as real as any other reality, as well as an opportunity for us to appreciate the extent to which reality is also fantasy.

I do love the imagination. Interpretation is a Logos operation; imagination, an Eros operation. If I am a psychotherapist for love of the imagination, it is because, for me, images have an erotic value (which may simultaneously and perhaps paradoxically be both an attraction and a repulsion: not all images are intrinsically lovely in any simplistic sense). If I once left the imagination, or if it once left me, psychotherapy now enables me to return to it, as, in the myth, Psyche finally returns to Eros to give birth to Pleasure. (Perhaps there is not so much difference, after all, between what Freud calls the pleasure principle and what I call the fantasy principle.)


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