I had a disagreement with an old friend recently about whether the images and metaphors that show up in our subconscious are “real.” I believe, just like with dreams, that when images and metaphors show up in our lives, they have something to teach us and I don’t think my friend would argue with that. His concern seems to be with something that I call a “key image.” I’ve been intrigued by poets and artists who have talked about having a key image that they keep “working” in their writings and art (or more accurately, an image that keeps “working them”). Stanley Kunitz and the Irish poet John O’Donohue are two who have written of this phenomena. In his book Beauty, O’Donohue wrote, “In the end, every artist is haunted by a few central themes. Again and again, they return to the disturbance and endeavor to excavate something new.” These key images typically come from childhood. For example, as a child E.B. White was fascinated by spider webs; he went on to author the bestselling children’s book Charlotte’s Web.
A few archetypal psychologists have looked at key images from a psychological perspective, namely James Hillman (who refers to key images as “acorns”) and Bill Plotkin, who calls them “personal soul articulations.” He writes in Nature and the Human Soul that each person’s soul articulation “employs a metaphor from nature to point to an ineffable mystery—the unique way in which each person belongs to the wild world.” And finally, the philosopher and theologian Henry Corbin, an expert on Sufi philosophy, wrote that the Sufis believe that each human has his or her own distinct “image of God.” In other words, [God] “can no longer be imposed by a collective faith, for it is the vision that corresponds to his fundamental and innermost being.” (I love that line. If only we could remember it, our religious wars and conflicts would surely go away.) In Native American cultures, visions are given prominence in one’s life when young people go on vision quests to uncover them.
From these writings we can infer that perhaps each of us has an inner vision, image, or metaphor and this image may be the key to both our learning and development in life, as well as in a broader way, to social change on the planet. For me, the notion of a key image is more than an intellectual musing, because I’ve been aware for most of my adult life of a key image that lies in my heart. It has to do with growing something in nurturing soil. I have worked with metaphor and imagery for twenty-five years, both professionally and personally, and the image of planting and caring for whatever wants to grow in rich, fertile soil is an image that won’t let me go. And I wouldn’t want it to. It not only feels like part of me, I’m sure that it’s the best part of me.
My friend wrote in an email: “I have a deep-seated objection to the perspective of Jung, Hillman and others like them. It is based on my conviction that they distance and separate us from a part of our own, unique process. Metaphors and myths are and are not nouns. They can be studied as nouns (e.g. Greek vs. Celtic myths), but if we approach them in a more personal way…in terms of how we express ourselves and how that type of expression emerges from and impacts us and others… then we see that they are part of the river of being. As such, they co-mingle with the continuing flow of process…ever-changing as a result of context. On a personal level, they are empty shells until we put them on and give them life—and every time we put one on, even if it is the same metaphor, it looks and feels different. “River of being” and “empty shell” are two images that I have used before but never in this context, and they feel different, fresh, and new as a result.”
Research over the past forty years has shown that our thinking stems from our imagination and imaginal process (see George Lakoff’s work in particular). We’re only conscious of five to ten percent of what goes on in our minds; most of our thought process is unconscious. So if we’re not conscious of most of the activity that goes on in our minds, key images may be very difficult to prove. Perhaps the best way is to ask you about your own direct experience. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you have a key image? Do you have something that won’t let you go?