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Failed synthesis: fascinating and annoying in equal measure
on 15 December 2011
Subtitled `a history of the imagination,' Harpur is trying to rehabilitate the Otherworld of the shaman, to achieve a possible integration with our modern, rational, and as he calls it, `puritan' psyche. But I find the attempt flawed and muddled.
`Imagination' does not refer to the mental dross that circulates in our minds automatically, fed by endless television and electronic distractions, but Imagination as William Blake understood it - the creative force. Harpur locates this force very firmly in the realm of Fairyland, the world of `daimons,' forces neither good nor evil, but, like the ancient gods, capable of destroying us if we deny them.
I have no doubt that neglect and denial of the noumenal world is leading us into the Wasteland that Harpur warns us of. Yet regrettably, while Harpur points to the problem, he brings us very little nearer a solution.
I say this account is flawed because I spent most of the book wondering how Harpur could possibly integrate Fairyland with our rationally understood universe. Maybe daimons are personifications of parts of our psyche, but Harpur seems to assert that they are not just that - at the same time denying their physicality. There is no bridge between the two worlds that would allow us to integrate them. The closest he comes is in the final chapter where he writes: `We have to cultivate a new perspective, or seeing through; and a sense of metaphor, seeing double.' (p.311)
Fair enough - but that doesn't excuse muddled thinking on (for example) medicine, where he says at one point, "The high incidence of cancer would [...] be `conceived as the suppressed form of diseases that we no longer manifest.'" (p.300) This is simply nonsense - most of the increased incidence of cancer now is due to the fact that in earlier times we didn't live long enough to get it.
Then I experienced Harpur's account as muddled - because Harpur cannot make up his mind, in the final chapter, whether depersonalisation - the feeling that we are actors in a play which we observe as it were from outside - is a way through for mystics, or the dead end towards which the rational ego is headed. Yet he argues that the (controlled) destruction of the little ego is precisely what gives shamans their power.
He writes: `I wonder whether we have even an inkling of how our lives might be if our momentary contacts with the Soul of the World - those little flashes of truth and beauty - were to become as continuous as the air we breathe.' (p.309)
I suspect in this he is right - but at the same time, I suspect that we need to go beyond the daimons to find that place - the place the mystics were trying to reach.