Hymn to the Depths
Updated: Jan 23, 2021
By Ramon Elani
The primitive mentality does not invent myths, it experiences them. Myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings, and anything but allegories of physical processes. Such allegories would be an idle amusement for an unscientific intellect. Myths, on the contrary, have a vital meaning. Not merely do they represent, they are the psychic life of the primitive tribe, which immediately falls to pieces and decays when it loses its mythological heritage, like a man who has lost his soul. A tribe’s mythology is its living religion whose loss is always and everywhere, even among the civilized, a moral catastrophe. But religion is a vital link with psychic processes independent of and beyond consciousness, in the dark hinterland of the psyche. Many of these unconscious processes may be indirectly occasioned by consciousness, but never by conscious choice. Others appear to arise spontaneously, that is to say, from no discernible or demonstrable conscious cause. -- C.G. Jung It is a blessing indeed that the world is not limited to our contemporary perception of it. After several hundred years of modernity, the belief that humanity is an omnipotent agent in the vastness of the cosmos persists in spite of continuous evidence to the contrary. As it has often been observed, crisis is not the exception but the rule. The modern human world is perpetually in a state of catastrophe, though, for most, this fact rarely prompts a revisiting of our deepest modern assumptions. Our present moment of fear and doubt is no exception. Unquestionably it occurs as a human tragedy, which should not be minimized. But we may also experience it in another way. Following Jung’s vital stipulation above, I will preemptively add the proviso that the human soul or psyche does not confront representations, it experiences as a lived reality. Thus we may experience crisis as a form of kathodos or descent and in doing so, find something that we have lost. We may find something that we have lost for long that we forget we ever had it.
The descent, most commonly understood as the hero’s journey into the underworld, is nothing less than a revelation of self to self. It is no coincidence that this occurs in the realm of the dead. Understanding of the self must be wrested from the hands of the King of Terror and Death. We may think here of the Vajrayana Buddhist deity Yamantaka “the Killer of the God of death,” who exists as the wrathful aspect of Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Insight. Insight is gained through the conquest of death. And, of course, the conquest of death does not imply deathlessness but rather, the acceptance and understanding of death. What is the nature of this knowledge of the self or insight gained through the journey into the abyss? What do we hope to find in Jung’s “dark hinterland of the psyche”? Simply put, we discover our mythic selves. And to identify the self as mythic means to understand that we inhabit a unfathomably vast and strange cosmos, which seethes with life and unknown intelligences. For it is the mythic consciousness that exists outside of temporality. It is the state of wakefulness from James Joyce’s nightmare of history. In the abyss of the underworlds, those dreaming depths, we find the self that exists beyond ego. It is there, in that womb of endless creation, we may perceive humanity in its undifferentiated state. Not as human qua homo sapiens but as human qua cosmos. Our most dire wound is in our imagined rupture with the world of the myriad things. Hell, the Christians tell us, has been harrowed. As moderns, we have been taught to believe that there is nothing to be found below and within, that the depths no longer bear fruit. In believing this insidious and calcifying untruth, we have cut ourselves off from the generative, the fecund. In fact, it has always been there. The animistic spirits, cast out of the world by a modernity that insisted upon seeing them merely as ignorant superstitions, have come to reside more fully inside of humanity. Where pre-modern humanity walked through a landscape alive and vibrant with strange nonhuman agents, us moderns are cursed to see the world as a sterile monochromatic backdrop, as we are all the while devoured from within by vengeful spirits. The catastrophic world is the mythic world. We have now been thrust back into the underworld, as the lies of modernity pile up in heaps around us. For this, let us be thankful. We, as a species, have needed many lessons and we will continue to receive many lessons. The myth we must now embrace, the last adventure that is left for us, is to return to the abyss within. As John Moriarty points out, we rose too quickly. Our work in the depths was not complete when we rocketed into the blazing heat of so-called Enlightenment. Luckily, as is written in the Dao De Jing, “the movement of the dao is returning.” We return to the nameless path, whether we like it or no, whether we choose it or not.