Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Carl Jung and James Hillman: The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil

I found this great quote from Tom Cheetham (in his works on Henry Corbin). I think only true Hillmaniacs can understand it, especially when we are trying to reconcile the drive toward integrative wholeness while recognizing the necessity of falling apart:
To compare Hillman and Jung in any detail is far beyond the scope of these remarks...Hillman is "a Jungian" by any standard, but rather a wayward one. Any simple contrast will be inadequate and perhaps misleading; but if Jung is the Wise Old man, Hillman is the Trickster, or pretends to be. Years ago when I was immersed in reading them both rather obsessively in the midst of the beginnings of my own psychic crisis, the difference was quite a practical one about which I thought very little. If I were feeling threatened by fragmentation, I would read Jung. If I were in terror of being bound and stifled, I would read Hillman. I still think  that says a lot about their differences. (All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings, pp. 190-91)

This contrast may help to explain and understand the juxtaposition of the Jewish tree of life right next to the deadly tree of pathologizing (knowing good and evil) found at the center of Eden. The Hebrew authors typically honor the phenomena of their observed experience, even when the phenomena screws with their received tradition. They acknowledge that humans want long life, and yet recognize that the same humans yearn to defy life by breaking the rules and challenging all boundaries. 

When the Genesis author writes that "Adam [humankind] became a living soul," he is recognizing the innate human propensity for life and survival, subsequently stating that God provides a tree of life to feed that original desire to live. But then God creates the puzzling tree of knowing evil as well as life-giving good, presided over by the divinely fashioned wise snake to give that tree of death (desire) a voice. Why? I think this image is added in order to acknowledge that there is also deep within the human psyche a yearning for something more than merely staying alive and following the rules; there is also a drive to challenge death. Humans not only desire to live and follow orders; but from crawling infancy we desire to rise up and walk, talk and act in forbidden ways. Humans have always been compelled to defy that most feared enemy of human existence, mortality. Paul calls death the "final enemy" (I Cor. 15:26). In the Eden story, by placing that final enemy in the form of a deadly tree of good and evil at the center of the garden alongside the tree of life, we see the ultimate challenge of humanity. God's good created order is made to be challenged. The purpose of life is to charge straight into the certainty of death, the real final frontier. Overcoming death is the final obstacle, the last enemy of complete dominion. The Hebrews knew this to be the final goal. In Isaiah the prophet we read of the final removal of the veil of death that encloses all humans:
And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, Even the veil which is stretched over all nations. He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces, (25:7-8) Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end. (60:20)
Paul quotes this passage in the light of Christ's resurrection: "When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory'" (I Cor. 15:54). This is reiterated in the Christian book of the Apocalypse: "Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:1-5)

The final obstacle, represented by the tree of knowing good and evil--the tree of death--has been overcome. The seed of the woman (humankind) has crushed head of the snake and his death-test. I am not setting forth a theological or metaphysical system here, though I think one can. I am merely suggesting that the Eden story posits what the human psyche intuits: humans desire both to live in order (tree of life), and we are brazenly compelled to transgress every boundary (tree of knowing good and evil) in our autonomously compelled pursuit of complete dominion, healing, wholeness, integration or individuation. 

Psychologically this plays out in everyday life. Humans are chronically discontent, simultaneously seeking order and disorder, pleasure and pathology. The single person wants desperately to be in a relationship; the married person fantasizes about freedom. The demure house wife or house husband ponders or pursues a covert tryst with a stranger. The born again Christian cheats on his taxes. The militant atheist secretly reads books about life after death. Our Jekyl-Hyde character is what makes us so fascinating. This enigmatic combination of loving peace and wholeness along with our innate compulsions to addictions, neuroses and fifty shades of gray is what makes us so damn human. After all, according to Isaiah, this is the schizophrenic or bi-polar image of God in which humans are designed: God says, "I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things" (Is. 45:6-7)

Finally, this ambiguity was not discovered by Freud. The Viennese doctor merely reinvented the Edenic wheel by restating this psychological ambivalence in his theory of the eros (life) and death drives--like it was some novel idea. This moral duplicity is also found in the Hebrew God who sent a flood to obliterate the earth that he so delicately created; and again by destroying the beautifully constructed Tower of Babel built by the very humans he created to have dominion over the earth. 

The biblical human is a delightful contradiction, intentionally. The two sides are represented in Carl Jung and James Hillman; Jungian and post-Jungian, wholeness and fragmentation.