Through the Looking Glass


Carl Jung hypothesized a “collective unconscious” of shared memories. And he had compelling evidence for it: certain recognizable figures appear in cultures world-wide, as well as spontaneously in our dreams, or in the delusions of the mad. Every culture has the notion of the dragon, a large winged serpent. It generally figures large in their legends. Yet there are no dragons in nature. Every culture has witches. Every lake of any size hosts a lake monster. East and West both know of unicorns, not just as shy beasts with a single horn that appear out of the forests, but as creatures with an unrelenting sense of right and wrong. When they went about conquering the known world, the Greeks and then the Romans had no problem identifying their own gods one by one with those of Egypt, or India, or Germany, or Carthage.

This begs explanation. Yet a “collective unconscious” of shared memories does not work. Nobody has a memory of actually seeing a dragon—let alone all of us. How can we have memories of things that never happened?

Being a pseudo-scientist, Jung explained it all as springing from the physiology of the brain. But that does not work. Why should any synapse express itself as a unicorn? 

There is a simpler explanation: that the imagination is not random, but is an organ which gives us glimpses of a real, objectively existing, realm. 

Moderns have trouble accepting this, because our religion of “scientism” is uncompromisingly materialistic. It insists, a priori, that only what is apparent to the physical senses is “real.” But this is an arbitrary, and ultimately nonsensical, position. A thing is real if it exists independent of any individual perception of it; and “perception” is a much broader category than sense perception. If not, then truth or justice are not real either, are they?

Just as truth or justice exist, then, a realm exists that we perceive with our imagination. We do not create what is there; we perceive it. 

Any serious artist knows this is so. Michelangelo, for example, claimed he did not design his sculptures. He started chipping away to discover what was hidden in the marble. Stephen King explains that he never outlines before he begins to write. He writes to find out what happens. He compares it to excavating dinosaur bones. The story already exists; his hope is to get it all intact. Leonard Cohen speaks of keeping “the equipment” in working order, in case something comes.

Fairyland is a real place. This is why all fairy tales are broadly similar: you are not allowed to make anything up. Shakespeare, moreover, presents it as where all mortal problems are solved; it is his “green world.” 

Plato proposes it as where all ideas come from. We would never be able to organize our random sense impressions into the concept “giraffe” or “morning” had these concepts not already existed in our minds. They indeed come to us like memories. 

This fairyland / collective unconscious / realm of ideal forms is, then, more perfect than and prior to the physical world. We see it in our dreams, and in art.

It is here that we find heaven and hell. And there is every reason to suppose that we will continue to exist in it after the carnival big top we call life has folded and moved on.

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