Literalism and the “Panorama of Creation”

by Brian West

The English author Patrick Harpur suggests that modern western consciousness lacks perceptive subtlety. More specifically, it lacks the understanding that the physical world, contrary to the presumptions of modern scientific materialism is also subtle and not entirely physical in any literal sense. In his books The Philosopher’s Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination and Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Other World he observes that it is “almost universal outside our culture – to understand that the physical body is also ‘subtle’ and that it can therefore easily be taken into (as many traditional cultures believe) the Otherworld because the body is not in the first instance a literal thing. In other words it is a purely Western peculiarity to confuse the literal and the physical, According to Harpur, the soul is as quasi-material as the body is quasi-spiritual – both forming a whole, we are in essence fluid organisms, passing easily between this world and the other.”[1] This ‘other’ world is primarily imaginative, but for Harpur, it is precisely its imaginative nature that constitutes its fundamental reality. What you may ask, does such thinking have for consciousness studies? Perhaps nothing more than a small degree of relevance that much modern ratiocination either ignores, refuses outright or perhaps simply is not adequately equipped to deal with in a modern intellectual climate of explanatory certainties. To paraphrase Gopi Krishna “perception changes only when the brain changes”.[2]

In addition to the so-called objective (or outside world) and the (inner) subjective world of the modern western worldview, Harpur defines another reality that he calls ‘daimonic reality’. This notion has its roots in Neo-Platonism which posits the existence of an intermediate world of psychic reality. Following on Plato’s most mystical dialogue, the Timaeus, the Neo-Platonists called the intermediate region the Soul of the World, widely known in Latin as Anima Mundi. Just as the human soul mediated between spirit and body, so the world-soul mediated between the One (the transcendent source of all things) and the material, sensory world. The agents of this mediation were called daimons (or daemons) who as it were, populated the Soul of the World and provided the connection between gods and men. Christianity later pronounced the daimons demons. But originally they were simply the beings that thronged myth and folklore, from the Greek nymphs, satyrs, fauns, dryads, etc. to elves, gnomes, trolls, jinn, and so on. Harpur proposes to characterize all of these ‘daimons’ as apparitional figures, and includes fairies and the modern aliens of contemporary mythic narratives under the same general name.[3] Their realm is an unseen world of agency that is always present and that cuts across the objective/subjective divide. For Harpur the ways of approaching and of studying this world are different than the way we study either of the other two worlds.[4] This ‘daimonic reality’ can be equivocated with C.G. Jung’s understanding of psychic reality. In fact the phrase ‘daimonic reality’ is an intentional attempt at removing the taint of subjectivity that popularly attaches to the word ‘psychic’.[5] For Harpur, daimonic reality gives rise to daimonic events in the literal world we have come to inhabit. These daimonic events leave seemingly anomalous and enigmatic pieces of evidence which turn out to confuse explanation and serve primarily to deepen rather than solve mystery.[6] The daimonic realm consistently subverts the efforts of the modern rational intellect, reminding us that there exist other orders of reality that are paradoxical, metaphorical, poetic, symbolic, and mythic. For Harpur reality is daimonic, it is not literal[7] and the significance of such an idea has utterly humbling implications for the modern ego. Such an insight reminds us that the idol of reason that governs the modern intellect is ever so easily frustrated often to the point of denial and rage against a profundity it is often unable either to fathom or to validate.

A further key implication of Harpur’s thought is the idea that the creative human imagination is a perceptive faculty, a means of seeing and transforming the world. Harpur’s thought draws from various domains such as psychology and philosophy and also shares a clear affinity with various psychological, mystical and poetic ideas expressed by figures such as the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats and the English poet and mystic William Blake. Harpur concedes that by the modern criteria of science his books “appear inconsistent and unsystematic, as they fail to classify and explain, however, he further advances the notion that rigorous classification and explanation while admirable in themselves tend to do violence to daimonic reality either by forcing it into the straitjacket of a single perspective or, worse, by denying it altogether (this for Harpur is known as scientism) or worse, by demonizing it (as in the case of official Christendom).[8]

Crucial to Harpur’s understanding of daimonic reality is his notion of soul as a set of perspectives, as many ways of seeing. To Harpur authentic perspective means seeing through as opposed to with the eye. As he reveals the aim of his book is one that attempts to see through itself, aware that its perspective is also partial and incomplete. Harpur would rather fail to describe reality, which he maintains is by nature daimonic, mysterious, and indescribable, than succeed in describing a false reality.[9] He believes that Western culture’s difficulty in grasping the idea that reality has many dimensions beyond the literal world of material science is the result of a kind of soul blindness, an inability to develop the imagination. He argues that what the contemporary western worldview suffers from is a lack of awareness of imagination and its myriad possibilities in our conscious lives.[10]
Harpur further suggests that it is incorrect to talk about the soul and also strictly speaking incorrect to talk about my soul because soul is only shorthand for Anima Mundi (Soul of the World) and, as such it is impersonal and collective. However this is not to say that it does not – paradoxically – also manifest itself personally, as individual souls.[11] Here we can detect certain correspondences between the concept of Anima Mundi and Gopi Krishna’s belief as observed in Michael Bradford’s New Paradigm article that humanity has what may be termed a universal or group mind/consciousness, from which each of our individualities is projected.[12]

The contemporary author and scholar of Gnosticism and Jungian psychology, Stephen Hoeller argues that in the Renaissance this Anima Mundi, or World Soul, was understood as a spiritual essence within creation, guiding the unfolding of life and the cosmos. In the words of the Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno, the World Soul “illumines the universe and directs nature. For the alchemists the Anima Mundi is the divine spark in matter, the “philosophical Mercury,” which is the “universal and scintillating fire in the light of nature. Hoeller further comments that the alchemists also understood that there is a connection between the anima mundi and the soul or innermost secret of man. The source of the wisdom and knowledge of the all-pervading essence of the Anima Mundi was “the innermost and most secret numinosum of man”. We can perhaps pause here a brief moment and consider eastern and western philosophical correspondences and further ponder the potential interchangeability of concepts such as ‘prana’, ‘shakti’, and ‘kundalini’ with terms such as ‘all-pervading essence’, ‘secret numinosum’, and ‘divine spark’ of western alchemical tradition. Why this is important to consider in connection with Harpur`s work is because he posits the daimonic realm as a means of connecting a vast spectrum of paranormal phenomena and lore. Daimonic Reality; A Field Guide to the Otherworld is a book about apparitions and visions, hardly respectable subjects. Subjects scarcely mentioned by the ‘official’ agents of our culture such as academics, the Churches, and the reputable press. Harpur observes that if people claim to have seen funny things, then those people are deemed to be deluded. Harpur suggests that the trouble of this position is that if it is a delusion then it seems to be one that has persisted throughout history and seems to be as prevalent now as it has ever been, judging from the number of reported sightings of all kinds of anomalous events and entities, from ghosts to flying saucers and lake monsters to Virgin Marys’ and weird extraterrestrials. There is perhaps nothing especially important about such sightings, except for the questions they raise about the nature of reality and of the mind, or both. It may be, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, that, their very unimportance is their importance.[13]

Harpur maintains that we are likely never to capture unequivocal evidence of the existence of such entities and ephemeral phenomena but this is precisely because they are imaginatively real in the most subtle ways. They are intelligent entities and energies forever beyond the literal understanding of the modern mind and the prison of its current literalism. For both Harpur and Hoeller, psyche or soul is Anima Mundi in a collective sense. It is the collective World Soul. And for Hoeller, once we recognize the mysterious connection between our own innermost essence and the soul of the world, we can come to work directly with the soul of the world, to help the anima mundi reveal its divine light and awaken. According to Hoeller the alchemists understood the anima mundi to be a creative force. “It is the artist, the craftsperson, the ‘inner Vision’ which shapes and differentiates matter, giving it form. Working within the world, this power is the light and power of the divine made manifest. The light that is within our own psyche is the light within the anima mundi. This is the same awareness as the yogi’s realization that one’s true nature and unchanging self (atman) is the Universal Self (Atman). What is within us is within everything.[14]

Dealing again with Harpur’s thought; he further comments that much contemporary western thinking demonstrates that we have been brought up with a literal-minded worldview. According to Harpur, we demand that objects have only a single identity or meaning. We are educated to see with the eye, only in single vision. When the preternatural breaks in upon us, transforming the profane into something sacred or unfathomably sublime, we are unequipped for it. Instead of seizing on the vision, reflecting on it – writing poetry if necessary – we react with fright and panic. Instead of countering like with like – that is, assimilating through imagination the complexity of the image presented to us – we feebly telephone scientists for reassurance. We are told we are only seeing things and so we miss the opportunity to grasp that different order of reality which lies beyond the merely literal.[15]

Literalism is for Harpur a kind of blight upon modern consciousness, a “mind forged manacle” as Blake might say. According to Harpur it is extraordinarily difficult for us to understand literalism because the world we inhabit is determined by it – words such as “real,” “factual,” “true” invariably mean literally real, factual, true. But in another sense, it is easy to understand another kind of reality, of truth – for example, whenever we watch a drama on stage or screen. If it is good enough (we might say: if it is art), we feel that we are watching a revelation of some deeper reality, normally concealed in the muddle of our mundane lives. Even if it is not great art, we still – astonishingly – suffer all the emotions of suspense, joy, pity, terror as if the drama were real. We are seized by it, seized because the drama is real – not literally real but imaginatively real. We stumble out of the theatre; rubbing our eyes as if we had just seen a big dream or a vision.[16]

Harpur further suggests that our trouble is that we find it difficult to take such imaginative reality seriously for long. Literal-mindedness reasserts itself. It even persuades us that powerful imaginative experiences are only imaginary, treating imagination with disdain. But for poets and visionaries such as William Blake, imagination is the primary and most important, mode of apprehending the world. For such a visionary mystic, literal reality is only one kind of reality, deriving from a super-ordinate reality which is metaphorical rather than literal, imaginative rather than empirical. Literal reality is therefore, if anything, less real (than this supposed super-ordinate reality) Moreover, in relation to the history of our culture, and also to traditional cultures, a belief in the literalness of reality is the exception rather than the rule. Harpur’s argument is that literal reality is the product of literalism, which is really a way of seeing the world. It insists that it is the only reality and, as such, actively denies other kinds of reality which it calls unreal, fictional, and even delusional.[17] For visionaries such as Blake, Imagination is the most real existence. This idea that this ‘other’ world is more ‘real’ than any physical place we might physically go to has its roots in the imaginative realms. Blake’s heaven and hell exist in what the philosopher Henri Corbin calls the ‘imaginative consciousness’ or the ‘cognitive imagination’. According to Corbin and to Blake, to say that something exists in the imagination does not subtract from its tangibility.[18]

Harpur suggests in response to the literal-minded approach to apprehending reality, the cultivation of a “sense of metaphor which, as its etymology suggests, is the ability to “carry across” – to translate one view of the world in terms of another. Sanity is the possession of what Blake called “double vision,” which allowed him, for example, to see with both his inward and outward eye. The same ability that allowed him to see “the world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower”. Harpur further challenges that “we should rethink our epistemology along the lines of a Blake, understanding that our primary mode of perception is imaginative. We simultaneously see and transform the world. As the ancients knew, the moon is not just a barren planet but also a dangerous goddess liable to induce delusions or revelations, madness or mystical experience”.[19]

In rethinking our epistemology Harpur suggests that the “idea of projection won’t wash”[20] and his difficulty seems to derive from the way the idea of projection has been handled throughout the history of psychological explanation. The idea of projection within the context of psychological discourse has come to suppose that images are thrown forward – projected – onto the world, where they are perceived as something external. This has come to mean that the images are ‘merely subjective’ but are wrongly seen as objective.[21] Harpur argues rather that images, imaginative or unconscious, are objective, even when perceived within us (as in dreams) however the taint in subjectivity lingers so long as we maintain that images ‘within’ are projected ‘outside’. This notion Harpur believes, fosters a “misleading dualism”.[22]

Harpur’s understanding of and affinity for the concept of Anima Mundi when thinking about the nature of reality illustrates what he is striving towards. Anima Mundi “returns us to the idea of soul” instead of psyche which according to Harpur, has lost this dimension of connotation in the hands of most western psychologists (with the exception of C. G. Jung). This return to soul is precisely a return to the many ways of seeing and of knowing the depths and plenitudes of both the self and the cosmos. This represents a return to seeing through the eye as opposed to merely seeing with it, a return to the act of visioning itself. It does not suggest a world within us easily reduced to ‘mere psychology’. Instead it re-introduces the idea of an objective ensouled world “out there”.[23] The mystic might say it re-introduces us to the idea of an ensouled world ‘out there’ that is simultaneously our own soul.

In New Paradigm Michael Bradford further observes that the lack of awareness of the source from which we come is indeed a great mystery of consciousness.[24] The philosophical dualism initiated by Descartes has historically underpinned western thinking and separates mind or the experience of subjective existence from external matter or the cosmos. The ensouled understanding of Harpur in contrast to Cartesian thought, views subject and object, cosmos and consciousness, as a unified whole. In a sense it understands this unified whole as its own source. The essence of this insight is also expressed by Richard Grossinger in his recent work Dark Pool of Light where he observes that “the deeper we travel into matter – and this of course includes experimental research and its applications as a critical part of our submersion – the deeper we also sink into our own true nature, the more we penetrate the intelligence underlying everything, our own inevitability and destiny as well. For we and substance share the same parentage and origin; we are different faces of the same coin”.[25]

In an effort to strain and link even the most tenuous of correspondences, it is suggested that Harpur’s stream of thought has particular relevance for the study and understanding of Kundalini in the following ways. One may infer from the writings of Gopi Krishna that Kundalini energy is not reducible to the realm of the merely literal. It is profoundly subtle. Kundalini phenomena may represent indices into more integrated and unified matrices of reality, doorways opening to a greater whole. The phenomena associated with kundalini activation much like the phenomena of Harpur’s ‘daimonic reality’ may represent super-ordinate yet perceptible manifestations of subtler realities, and limited linguistic metaphors the likes of which language must employ, may point meaningfully towards a need for the revision and/or expansion of our current ontological and epistemological assumptions. Interpreting kundalini phenomena and manifestations in an only literal way may result in failure to apply bona fide perceptual faculties of the human mind, faculties such as the visionary imagination. One could confidently advance the idea that it is the visionary imagination that has been the faculty most responsible for intuiting, apprehending and directing the creative energies of the human species. Along with Blake perhaps Gopi Krishna might suggest that a healthy visionary imagination is a far more suitable cognitive faculty than the modern intellect for intuiting the vast “panorama of creation”?[26] After all if there is any merit to the notion that the human imagination is a visionary faculty of perception par excellence, is it not intuitively appealing to suppose that it’s very sustaining source would be a creative super-intelligent energy? This linguistic metaphor also sheds further light upon the title of Harpur’s other book The Philosopher’s Secret Fire. Harpur’s secret fire is the same ever burning creative energy that fuels the visionary imagination. It is kundalini in western raiment. And yes this writer does acknowledge the irony embedded in such an assertion that is itself metaphorical…


  1. ^Harpur, Patrick. Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld. Pine Winds Press, 2003 edition (originally published by Viking, 1994).
  2. ^1978 discourse in New York entitled New Dimensions of Consciousness part II CD
  3. ^Harpur, Patrick. Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld. Pine Winds Press, 2003 edition (originally published by Viking, 1994).Pg. 35
  4. ^Ibid. (The comment is an excerpt from a review of the book that appears on the books jacket cover. The comment is ascribed to the late John E. Mack, former Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School).
  5. ^Ibid. Pg. 48
  6. ^Ibid. Pg. 62
  7. ^Ibid. Pg.162
  8. ^Ibid.
  9. ^Ibid. Pg. 258
  10. ^Ibid.
  11. ^Ibid.
  12. ^Bradford, Michael. The New Paradigm. ICR Newsletter Volume 27, No. 1, January 2010
  13. ^Ibid. Pg. xi of the introduction.
  14. ^Hoeller, Stephen. Anima Mundi: Awakening the Soul of the World. Sufi Journal, Issue 67, Autumn 2005
  15. ^Harpur, Patrick. Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld. Pine Winds Press, 2003 edition (originally published by Viking, 1994).
  16. ^Ibid.
  17. ^Ibid.
  18. ^Lachman, Gary. Swedenborg: An Introduction to his Life and Ideas. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin Books 2009 pg. 119
  19. ^Harpur, Patrick. Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld. Pine Winds Press, 2003 edition (originally published by Viking, 1994).
  20. ^Ibid.
  21. ^Ibid.
  22. ^Ibid.
  23. ^Ibid.
  24. ^Bradford, Michael. The New Paradigm. ICR Newsletter Volume 27, No. 1, January 2010
  25. ^Grossinger, Richard. Dark Pool of Light: The Neuroscience, Evolution and Ontology of Consciousness. North Atlantic Books. Berkeley, California, 2012. Pg. 323
  26. ^Krishna, Gopi, The Wonder of the Brain,ICR and KRF Ltd, 2001

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