Discover more from Mythic Journeys
Many Branches on the Tree of Life
or, Reconciling the personal and collective unconscious
One Journey’s End
Following the mystical highs of his previous journey in active imagination, the figure of the Knight serves once more as guide before handing the reins to another figure. The reason that he must depart becomes apparent in the Knight’s final adventure, in which he shares the wisdom that he has found.
The Knight begins by sharing his experience with close family and friends. While they react positively, the Knight cannot help but wonder if this is proof of a genuine insight or simply out of their love for him. This sends the knight on one last quest, to connect with others.
Now I wandered in places I had never seen before. I met Jews and Christians, Muslim Arabs and Buddhists from Japan. I met Africans… Hindus and Atheists… Some would nod their heads and say “Yes, that is the way it is.” Others would say, “What a nice story!” … [Others] said such things as “No, you have got it all wrong!” … “Yes, you have a partial truth” … “Don’t you know that God is just a creation of men’s imaginations?” … “God is dead, why try to revive him?”; and, finally, “Heresy!”
The variety and range of responses puzzle the Knight, who returns to the place in the forest where his first quest began to ponder.
Limitations of Individual Experience
Doubtless the Knight’s experience was profound, and a testament to the fascinating possibilities of active imagination. But just like the Knight’s final quest, the question should be (and has been) raised of how applicable insights gained in such a practice are to those outside the practitioner or their close relations.
The existence of Spiegelman’s The Tree, along with its value in study, rest upon the answer to this question. The Tree is certainly a psychological text, but not in the same sense as a behavioral study attempting replicable experiments, or a paper detailing trends found across varying subjects.
At the same time, for all the Knight’s experiences of God, Spiegelman did not claim divine intervention. While mythological images are common, The Tree’s stories lack the centuries of cultural staying power that makes a myth.
We must then ask, if The Tree is not in these scientific or religious categories, where does it fall on the scale between fiction and scripture; between “an interesting dream journal,” and “insight into the human mind?”
There will be issues in communicating any personal experience to others who did not live it, but especially so with something as introspective as active imagination. Just as the Knight meets some who are moved by his journey, others who dismiss him, and others who are hostile, by the very act of publishing his active imagination sessions Spiegelman opened himself up to the same possibility.
As a personal aside from this article’s author: I have met a similar variety of responses to the videos that I have shared on the Mythos & Logos YouTube channel. That project works to share symbolism in mythology and traditional stories; and while the vast majority of people are supportive, there will always be those who are dismissive, hostile, or otherwise “don’t get it.” While I can lean on storytelling traditions, the deeply personal nature of active imagination leaves far more room for self-doubt.
By publishing the results of his own active imagination sessions, Spiegelman risks muddying the waters of the collective unconscious (the aspect of the unconscious which we share) with his own individual psyche. But he does have a solution to this, which similarly presents itself to the Knight.
A Tree With Many Fruits
When the Knight is in the forest and looks up, he finds himself at the base of a gigantic tree which he had never seen before. The tree has many branches with many fruits, but rather than apples or pears, the fruits are symbols.
The symbols on the Tree of Life include the Knight’s Star of David, alongside other shapes, body parts, animals, and plants. These symbols are, he learns, the fruits which nourish and give man life. As the Knight sees the different symbols, he sees that he is not alone in the forest, but that there are as many others as branches on the tree.
The Knight realizes that the forest is, in fact, the Garden of Eden. To understand how his experience and symbol fit in with the others, he applies the same method to the garden’s other residents that he used to reunite the fractured God; to let each know where the other is.
Bridging Individual and Collective Experience
From here the Knight steps aside a guide, making way for a variety of figures who come next. By taking his imagination away from the figure of the Knight, Spiegelman is able to place himself in the shoes of others.
Our guides through the rest of The Tree will be the Arab, the Ronin, Julia the Atheist-Communist, Sybilla the Nymphomaniac, Maria the Nun, the African, Maya the Yogini, the Old Chinese Man, and the Medium Sophie-Sarah. Finally, the book concludes with a series of psalms written by each of the guides.
Each of these guides will be the subject of one post here, sharing the insights found in their journeys. It will be interesting to see how much the varying figures reflect the collective unconscious as compared to different aspects of Spiegelman’s own personal psyche.
Please feel free to share your thoughts as well; I am hopeful that this blog will be a place where, as we follow Spiegelman’s journey (and those of other authors in the future) we can better understand where we are, and together create a collage of experiences forming an image of the collective unconscious we share.