The Journey Thus Far

Symbolic Thinking

      In Paris, the winter of 1998, I made substantial progress in my thinking on images. At the same time that The Harrowing of Hell was being built up glaze after glaze, I was also rewriting draft after draft of Enter Through the Image. Naturally, the discoveries I made in one quickly affected the other. For example, through prolonged meditation on The Harrowing, I was able to understand how images are combined in a work of art. I discovered the more combinatory, indeed unifying manner of 'symbolic thinking'. But, to articulate that discovery, I had to re-write the second part of my manuscript. And, in doing so, I discovered the more ancient form of logic underlying iconologic - the logic of 'similarity and difference'. In various fragments from Empedocles, Macrobius, and a long-neglected Gnostic work, I was even able to substantiate its existence historically. This led, naturally, to a new way of looking at my painting. And so, before attempting to regard the imagery of that painting in this more ancient light, I must first articulate the outlook expressed in Empedocles, Macrobius, and the Gnostic text.
      Ever since the day I had first chanced upon the Nag Hammadi corpus, I had been studying its Gnostic gospels, prayers, and teachings, marvelling at their lost outlook onto the world. First, in the Gospel of Philip, I had come upon those mysterious words: "enter through the image". Then, another work from the Nag Hammadi corpus started to draw me deeper into its mysterious imagery. Each time I re-read The Apocryphon of John, I could detect a more ancient manner of thinking in its mythic unfolding, but I was still unable to identify it, isolate it, or draw it forth. While reading Empedocles and Macrobius, the outlines of this ancient thinking became clearer. All these works had used the image of 'the dark, swirling abyss' to explain both the structure of the cosmos and the structure of the mind.
       In The Apocryphon of John the Creation is portrayed as a series of emanations moving outward from the ancient Unity at their centre. This was an image which I had already experienced intuitively, due to my initial nightmares of the swirling abyss, and my subsequent meditations on the Alchemical engraving which showed the circle of light at its centre. Now, The Apocryphon was taking me a step beyond all this, by revealing how the One had knowingly spiralled outward into the darkened abyss. This primordial, more ancient form of 'knowing' constituted the fundamental gnosis of Gnosticism. And, as a result of it, we are able to knowingly return to the One. By thinking through images, entering through each in turn, we are able to spiral our way back through the depths of the abyss to the luminous One at its centre. This may be accomplished, not only through images in the cosmos, but internally, through images in the mind. But, to think through these images and hence 'think symbolically' is no easy task. We must regain the more ancient manner of thinking manifest in The Apocryphon.
      During the creation, according to The Apocryphon of John, the One produced from itself the multiplicity of the cosmos, creating a multi-layered mirror in which it could reflect upon itself. As the Gnostics described it, the One was 'a fount of luminous water' which 'poured itself forth' into the creation. But, each of the images afloat in the watery darkness manifest 'a particle of its light', and so, maintained a fragment of its original unity. Through these images, the One was able to reflect upon itself. And, each new image - emanating outward from the One in wave after wave - offered the One a further reflection of itself.
      Of the images swirling about in the watery depths, it was man who offered the most accurate reflection, because it was he, through his self-consciousness, who offered the One a conscious image of itself. While each aspect of the creation, each in its own unique way, reflected an aspect of the One to itself - the eagle, through its soaring; the sun, through its luminosity - man, through his self-consciousness, reflected to the One to itself as indeed self-conscious. And so, the moment man becomes conscious of that unity in himself, he knowingly returns to the source of unity in himself, which is the ancient One.
      Macrobius echoed this idea in his own writings, using a series of similar images. For him, when the One at the source of creation "...pours itself forth to animate the immense universe, it does not permit any division of its singleness." And he goes on to explain:
      "Since... the Supreme God... forms and suffuses all below with life, and since this is the one splendor lighting up everything and visible in all, like a countenance reflected in many mirrors arranged in a row, and since all follow on in a continuous succession, degenerating step by step in their downward course, the close observer will find that from the Supreme God to the bottommost dregs of the universe there is one tie, binding at every link, and never broken. This is the golden chain..."(Macrobius, (I. XIV. 15) Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, translated by William H Stahl, Columbia University Press, 1990, p. 145.)
       As in The Apocryphon, so here the solitary outpouring of all Creation grants its unity to all things while seeking those images among the many-layered multiplicity which reflect its Unity back to itself. In this way, the Creation forms one long 'Chain of Being', each link in the chain a mirror reflecting the Divine Source. Since each aspect of the creation mirrors its Creator, this chain then becomes 'a ladder of vision', where every rung reflects its maker. Or, it is 'a celestial stair', each turning in the steps like a fragmented shard of the divine glass, but all reflecting the spiral upward to the Creator. Thus, the entire creation may also be seen as 'a celestial rose', each object a different petal in the spiral, but all as petals of one rose, and all leading in their spiral to the same centre. Finally, this leads to the more ancient image of the swirling abyss, in which all the figures afloat in the spiralling mists take their form, light, and reflection from the circle of light at their centre.
      As such, each time an object offers its own, unique reflection of the Sacred, it returns to the One - each in its own unique way. The eagle manifests the One in flight, and so, by flying, returns in unity to the One. Man manifests the One in thought, and so, by thinking, returns in unity to the One. Specifically, when he becomes aware, in his thinking, of his own origins in the One, then he knowlingly returns into union with the One.The Apocryphon reveals to us this more ancient form of 'knowing' but, unfortunately, that myth became lost to our culture for seventeen hundred years - buried in a clay jar at Nag Hammadi Egypt - and only resurfaced in this century.
      Hence, when man gazes once more at the creation in light of this lost account, each aspect of it becomes a sacred symbol. More than that, each object becomes an image which he may 'enter through' into union with the Sacred. This is possible because Man himself is also a mirror, a unique aspect of the creation. Uniquely, man is able to contemplate the creation in the awareness of its higher unity. The moment he gazes at an eagle or the sun, and combines its unique quality - to soar, to shine - with Man's own unique quality - to contemplate each in the awareness of the One - then they all combine into a single reflection of the Sacred. Indeed, they all unite, by finding their unity in the One. At that moment, 'man flies on eagle's wings through the doorway of the sun'. Hence, the instant they all become one in their reflection of the Sacred, the combination of symbols is achieved. At that moment, man regains the ancient, more unifying manner of 'symbolic thinking'.
      What The Apocryphon offers us is not only an account of the creation, but a model of our own mind. When the creation is understood as a series of mirrors arranged row on row, then we may begin to think through its various images, so as to return, in mind, to our own origins. We may think through a series of ever more ancient memory-images, so as to become one again with the archaic Unity at their source.
      In the end, we come to understand that the cosmos and the mind are mirror reflections in which man and God seek one another. The One at the source of creation seeks its own reflection in its created cosmos. And it finds its own image in those aspects of the creation which, each in its own unique manner, reflect the One back to itself. Especially man, through his self-consciousness, knowingly reflects the One back to itself. He does this when he becomes aware, for a brief but revelatory moment, of the Oneness within himself.
      And yet, to begin with, man seeks that image of his own interior unity in the images of creation. Indeed, all of creation becomes a mirror in which he seeks his reflection. And finally, when the creation is understood and interpreted symbolically, it becomes a series of symbols which mirror his mind's own interior unity. Ultimately, descending through the mind's images to its innermost source of unity, he finds the interior reflection of the One in himself, in his 'innermost Self', now understood as his innermost divinity. Thus, the Self at the centre of consciousness and the One at the centre of creation are merely mirror reflections of each other, each revealing the other's interior unity.
      Each time we meditate on images in the swirling depths of the vortex, we are able to enter through them to the One at their centre. But, more than that, we may enter through various combinations of images. These symbols are combined when we see them in light of their higher unity. We combine our knowing with their unique manner of movement, and so return together to the One at their shared source. For example, 'an angel' offers us the combinatory image of 'a man' 'with wings'. But, we only enter through that image when we combine 'man's knowing' with 'the bird's flight', and so'knowingly ascend' to the Sacred. All these different aspects of the creation are combined when, together, they reflect the ancient One to itself. The creation offers us an endless number of possible combinations. To 'think symbolically' is to think through these different combinations, recognizing their respective metaphors, and seeing them in light of their ultimate unity.

The Ancient Logic
of Similarity and Difference

      As a result of my efforts, I had learned that 'to think symbolically', that is, to combine images in unexpected ways. But I soon realized that we may also displace, transform, or re-arrange those same images in our thinking. As such, a different iconologue underlies each of these movements in our thinking. By re-discovering the ancient logic at the root of all iconologues, I could thus learn to 'think symbolically', not only through combinations of images, but also through their displacements, transformations, and re-arrangements. Hence, I set out once more on a quest for the ancient logic at the root of iconologic. And, in several fragments from Empedocles, as well as passages from Macrobius, I found evidence of this long-forgotten way of thinking.
      Like John in The Apocryphon, the fifth century B.C. philosopher Empedocles used the image of the spiralling abyss to account for the creation. Indeed, all the Pre-Socratic philosophers shared this image of the diné or 'vortex', to display the cosmos' creation. But Empedocles was the first to logically identify its underlying matrix. Using the more ancient form of logic - the logic of 'similarity and difference' - he managed to image forth the cosmos' underlying structure.
      Empedocles saw the creation as a combination of four invisible elements - water, earth, air, and fire - which, in the spiralling vortex, 'wove through' one another so as to create the fabric of creation. Underlying the weave of these elements was a further combination of four 'qualities': cold and hot, moist and dry. Since each of the four elements was a combination of two qualities, water thus became cold and moist; earth, cold and dry; air, hot and moist; and fire, hot and dry. When arranged in a circle, each element was seen to share a common quality with its neighbour (and hence, a similarity), while also sharing an uncommon quality that kept it separate and apart (and hence, a difference). For example, earth and fire were both dry, and so, shared a similarity. But earth was cold and dry, while fire was hot and dry. Hence, they also shared a difference which split them asunder.
      All the elements and qualities could thus be arranged into a kind of mandala, which showed the various strands that 'wove' each object into being: the four hidden elements, their underlying qualities, and the singular Source that held them all together. Thus, the more ancient logic of 'similarity and difference' uniquely manifest 'the weave' in the fabric of creation.

What this image of the cosmos showed is that all objects are linked to one another in a most fundamental way. Each object is a four-fold combination of earth, air, fire, and water in different proportions, and each of these contains a two-fold combination of hot or cold, moist or dry. In terms of the more ancient logic, all objects share a certain, inherent similarity, while also manifesting a degree of difference. But, beyond that, each object also betrays a deeper, hidden unity. Thus, by thinking through these similarities and differences, we can see each object in light of its deeper unity.
      Macrobius seized upon Empedocles' vision of the cosmos, and clearly exposed its underlying logic. According to Macrobius, the divine Creator "...wove air and water into fire and earth, and thus a mutual attraction ran through the universe, linking together unlike elements by the similarities underlying their differences." (Macrobius, I. VI. 33, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, edited and translated by William Harris Stahl, Columbia University Press, 1952, p. 106). .But the differences were equally necessary in this scheme of things, as they forced the whole to be constellated into its parts. "Thus they are (also) linked together by that very feature which makes them uniformly different from each other." (Ibid., p. 106). Thus, all things are, according to Macrobius,"distinguished by a difference and associated by a similarity." (Ibid., p. 237). This is the logic of 'similarity and difference' that lies at the root of iconologic. In the end, Macrobius offered a vision of the cosmos in which all things are woven together into a single 'Golden Chain'. The One is present in every link of the chain. And the cosmos, in every stage of its evolution, reflects the One at its summit, thus creating a hierarchical yet unified order of being.
      But, rather than using the image of the Golden Chain, Empedocles used the more ancient image of the diné or 'vortex'. The four elements, according to him, constitute the 'four hidden roots' of all things. Though, in their initial state, they are 'one only', their underlying similarities and differences allow them to combine, separate, and re-combine into the multiplicity of all things: "There are these alone; but, running through one another, they become now this, now that, and like things evermore." (Empedocles, Diels' fragments, in John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy (4th ed.), Adam & Charles Black, London, 1930, pp. 207 - 211, fragment 17).
      Ultimately, Empedocles gives us a vision of a swirling vortex, in which Strife brings about the separation of the One into many, dispersing the multiplicity along the periphery. Meanwhile, Love is able to unite them all, bringing them together once more into the One at the swirling centre. This comes out explicitly in another fragment: "When Strife was fallen to the lowest depths of the vortex, and Love had reached to the centre of the whirl, in it do all things come together so as to be one only..." (ibid, fragments 35, 36) Thus, the cosmos continually alternates between unity and multiplicity, offering us "a twofold tale. At one time it grew together to be one only out of many; at another, it parted asunder so as to be many instead of one - Fire and Water and Earth and the mighty height of Air." (ibid, fragment 17)
      According to this more ancient view of the creation, all things are differentiated from each other, due to their differing proportions of elements. And the elements themselves are differentiated from each other, due to the differences in their qualities. And yet, a similarity also inheres. All things are composed of the four elements, which are themselves assimilated to each other through similar qualities.
      Meanwhile, a deeper unity underlies these differences and similarities. For, when the One at the source of creation 'poured itself forth to animate the immense universe, it did not permit any division of its singleness'. All things, composed variously of elements and qualities, betray in their fundamental constitution a deeper unity, which is derived ultimately from the One. By imaging the creation as a diné, a swirling vortex with the One as a circle of light at its centre, we are able to see how all things on the periphery are linked, and indeed, united with the greater Unity in their midsts.
      This rudimentary logic of 'similarity and difference' lies at the root of iconologic, allowing us to think again through arrangements of images. Each time we behold a constellation of images, a certain iconologue underlies their arrangement. This iconologue, as I eventually realized, is made up of a series of similarities and differences. Every iconologue, whether that be combination, displacement, or transformation uses the similarities and differences underlying the images to display a distinctive relationship. By identifying the iconologue, and thus, the way it relates the images to one another through similarity and difference, we may suddenly become aware of the arrangement's underlying unity. And so, we may think through that arrangement of images to the Unity at its source.
      And so, as we now journey through The Harrowing of Hell, identifying its various iconologues, we must keep this inhering iconologic ever in mind. We must see how each arrangement of images is created through similarity and difference. And yet, beneath them lies a greater unity, revealing the ancient Unity at their source.