Mythfire Responds (“Don’t Spook The Locals!”)

A reader recently sent in an email to Mythfire with this question:

Been enjoying your blog.  About that “sin of literalism,” isn’t it equally a sin to go too far to the other extreme (and what would you call that?)?  The author chose to use a heavily freighted word (sin), when error would have been more succinct (I feel).  And, he used literalism in a sense that implied an extreme form of literalism.  Isn’t a certain amount of literalism required for basic communication?

The quote being referenced here was included in the blog entry from October 11, 2009, and comes from James Hollis’s book Archetypal Imagination.  Here is the quote again along with the one that preceded it:

“In a poem titled ‘a High-toned Old Christian Woman,’ Wallace Stevens asserted that he, the poet, and she, the theologue, are about the same process, the making of fictions. But the poet remains metaphysically and psychologically free in his awareness of the fictive nature of all knowledge and the provisionality of all perspectives, while she remains trapped in her idolatrous literalism. Such fictions are necessary, coming from facere in Latin, meaning ‘to make,’ for all constructs are things made. To fall in love with our own constructs and believe that they contain the mystery is blasphemous, for such reification seeks to colonize the mystery on behalf of ego’s dominion.” (88)

“This modern sensibility is required since depth psychology has taught us that each statement about reality is an implicit Rorschach of our own mind. What Blake called ‘reorganized innocence’ is necessary to spare us from the sin of literalism, which is an unintended insult to the autonomy and complexity of mystery.” (89)

Sin is indeed a loaded or “heavily freighted” term. In his book Healing Fiction, James Hillman employs the phrase “disease of literalism” instead of “sin of literalism” (80). Hollis’s complaint in his above quote is directed against religious fundamentalism; Hillman’s complaint is essentially against philosophical materialism (“The theory that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena”  – American Heritage Dictionary). Both men are against the ego’s dominion over – or colonization of – the mystery that is life.

When he writes “sin of literalism,” Hollis most certainly also has in mind one or more etymological meanings of the word “sin.” In another book of his, Creating a Life, Hollis observes that “sin” is derived “from an archery term which means to miss the mark” (13). A quick search of the word “sin” online suggests that it is also linked in both its Ancient Greek and Biblical Hebrew forms with the meanings “offense” and “err.” Thus, the Mythfire reader is absolutely correct to suggest that “error” is a good word to use in place of “sin,” especially if the latter is taken to mean “to do evil” as is generally the case today.

For Hollis and Hillman, the error, offence, or the missing of the mark – the sin of literalism – is the belief that there is not more than meets the eye. What you see is the only thing you get. Bible verses, stories, and figures have only one possible meaning and, of course, it is not metaphorical or allegorical. And for the philosophical materialists, well, only matter matters. The spiritual dimension is quite literally nowhere to be seen.

As for the rest of the reader’s question, if the “sin of literalism” is the dominion of the ego (and colonization of the mystery), then the opposite extreme could be understood as the absence of the ego and/or its enslavement to the mystery. This can sometimes be seen in cults and New Age movements. Here, it is not the case that only matter matters, but its opposite: only that which is immaterial matters. Perhaps we could label this desire to forever be in a mystical state of loving union with the divine the “sin of immaterialism.” The problem of course is that while we may indeed have our head in the sky at times, it certainly is preferable to at the same time have two feet firmly planted on earth. (Jungian psychology refers to this balancing act of human relationship with the divine mystery “the ego-Self axis”).

Finally, yes, on several scores a certain amount of literalism is required for “basic communication.” Whether it is navigating traffic lights out in our car or navigating relationships with strangers, friends and loved ones, there certainly are rules of the road that are ignored at our own peril. This is where the ego part of the human-divine or ego-Self axis must be honored and given its due. Don’t run red lights and, when interacting with loved ones who are religious literalists (a.k.a. having a fundamentalist understanding of scripture), it’s more often than not advisable, and the more loving thing, to not step on their toes, i.e. their fundamental beliefs.

Or, in keeping with the upcoming Halloween weekend,  a teacher of myth and psychology once put it this way: “Don’t spook the locals!

—————

 

Been enjoying your blog.  About that "sin of literalism,” isn't it
equally a sin to go too far to the other extreme (and what would you
call that?)?  The author chose to use a heavily freighted word (sin), when error would have been more succinct (I feel).  And, he used
literalism in a sense that implied an extreme form of
literalism.  Isn't a certain amount of literalism required for basic
communication?
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