Imagination as Divination

Durand calls imagination “the possibility of experiencing the noumenal,” for the often strange and wondrous manner or feeling tone of its presentation. Given that we cannot know the origin of the imaginal, its mysterious presentation invites the question of the relationship between imagination and divination.

“Divination” is commonly defined as “foretelling the future,” yet a perhaps more basic definition refers to the practice of bringing forth what is hidden. If we understand imagination as the unknown becoming known, and if we understand imagination, not as something one has or does, but as something one opens to, then imagination can be understood as the direct apprehension of the divine, however one conceives of the divine.

Imaginatively we stretch out towards what imagination cannot apprehend. We realize that there is more in what we see than meets or ever can meet even the inner eye.
–Mary Warnock (on Kant)

Although we may entertain beliefs, we are unable to make definitive rational or scientific claims as to the nature of the unknown, because, of course, it is unknown. This is why Jung stated that, although these terms carry different connotations, we cannot make any ontological distinction between “mana,” “daimon,” “god,” or “unconscious” (Memories 336-337). It is worth considering the sense in which all these terms share a common meaning, for the insight this provides as to the experience of imaginal expression.

Jung generally chose the term “unconscious” for its less numinous, more scientific tone, but in common usage the term “unconscious” is also burdened by unintended associations: the suggestion that it refers to a fixed, limited “black box” residing in a specific location in the brain, as in “The Unconscious”; or, that it refers to any aspect of self not strongly identified with the ego-image, as noted by Hillman and Adams (see Dream 42; “Imaginology”). For some, “The Unconscious,” spoken of in hushed and reverent tones, surely has taken on the form and weight of a divinity. My use of “unconscious” is meant as a broad term applying to all of which one is not consciously aware.

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate. –CG Jung

When imaginal expression is viewed as a form of communication with an Other (meaning “not-self,” or “that which I don’t identify as me”) whose nature is unknown, the “conversation” can be fruitful while the source remains obscure, just as a conversation with any stranger. Despite lack of provenance (“Who is this stranger? From where?”), still one can engage in dialogue without abdicating agency; one can evaluate the stranger’s words as helpful, inspiring, cryptic, frightening, confused, superficial, deceptive, or deeply true. The same is true of imaginal dialogue. Through continuing interaction, one may even come to know this Other a bit, or at least begin to conjecture a backstory. Allowing the Other to speak freely is akin to opening awareness toward the unconscious, and does not obligate one to act in accordance with the Other’s view. One uses the evaluative function, not to shut down the Other, but to determine an appropriate response; then, intuition is integrated with intellect.

If one is able to view “god” and the “unconscious” as potential synonyms, then chance, improvisation, and imaginative play can all be understood as forms of divination, for all begin with an openness to the unknown.