Imaginary Reality

Patrick Harpur
Magonia 32, March 1988

After brooding long and hard on visions and encounters of all kinds, including UFO encounters, Hilary Evans is forced to conclude that “within our minds there exists a creative, intelligent, sympathetic and understanding capability, whose function is to fabricate non-real scenes and scenarios.” (1) He calls this capability “for the sake of convenience, the producer”.

We might expect this fundamental human faculty to have been previously observed. It has been – usually by poets, and in particular the Romantic poets (notably Bill Blake) who found it convenient to call 1t the imagination.

On no account must we confuse their imagination with what commonly goes by that name today. In a passage (2) familiar to all students of Eng-Lit., Coleridge dismisses the latter as mere ‘fancy’ which is “no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space”. Authentic imagination on the other hand is divided into two kinds, the primary and the secondary.
“The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and is a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to recreate…”

This isn’t easy to understand; but since it’s of vital importance in the case for reading UFOs as primary imaginative phenomena, it may be worth pursuing. Another poet, W H Auden is helpful. He adopts and adapts Coleridge’s definition as part of his own artistic credo:’ (3)
“The concern of the Primary Imagination, its only concern, is with sacred beings and sacred events. The sacred is that to which it is obliged to respond; the profane is that to which it cannot respond and therefore does not know… A sacred being cannot be anticipated; it must be encountered … All imaginations do not recognise the same sacred beings or events, but every imagination responds to those it recognises in the same way. The impression made … by a sacred being is of an overwhelming but indefinable importance – an unchangeable quality, an Identity, as Keats said: I-am-that-I-am is what every sacred being seems to say… The response of the imagination to such a presence or significance is a passion of awe”.

A sacred being can be beautiful or ugly, benign or terrifying, good – or evil, etc., but it must arouse awe. Some sacred beings are, of course, sacred only to a single imagination – a particular landscape, say, or a teddy bear; some, e.g. kings, are only sacred within a particular culture; others seem to be sacred to all imaginations at all times – the Moon, says Auden, Fire, Snakes, Darkness etc. ‘Lights in the Sky’ may well fall into the latter category, while UFOs qua spacecraft probably belong to specifically westernised cultures, as witches, say, belong to tribal societies. (Sacred beings can also combine in action to form sacred patterns of events – myths such as the death and rebirth of the hero seem to be universal; the alchemical Magnum Opus is near-universal occurring in different cultures at different times. UFO myths may similarly occur only in cultures which are at a particular stage of development.)

The secondary imagination is of less concern to us here. It is the faculty the poet brings to bear on the sacred beings of the primary. It’s not, as Coleridge points out, creative, but recreative; it is active not passive; its categories are not sacred/profane but beautiful/ugly, i.e. it aesthetically evaluates the primary experience. Without its activity our passivity in the face of the primary imagination would be the mind’s undoing: “sooner or later its sacred beings would possess it [i.e. the mind], it would come to think of itself as sacred, exclude the outer world as profane and so go mad”. (This aptly describes the progressive disintegration of various cults and their leaders).

The struggle of the individual secondary imagination with its sacred beings makes art (in the case of sacred mythical events – drama, epic poetry, novels, etc.) The struggle of the collective secondary imagination to grasp the beings and events sacred to a particular culture produces the theoretical models of anthropology, sociology, ufology, etc, (It goes without saying that in the light of this view of imagination ‘imaginary’ is no longer opposed to ‘real’ – the sacred beings are more ‘real’ than ordinary consensus reality. We know what Evans means when he talks of the ‘non-real scenes’ that the producer ‘fabricates’, but he should qualify his definition nonetheless.)

C G Jung’s therapeutic use of a technique he called ‘Active Imagination’ is also relevant here. He is nowhere as specific about it as he might be, nor is it particularly well-named since its purpose is to allow unconscious images (e.g. in the form of fantasies) to rise up into consciousness where they can be passively observed, as if in a waking dream, and subsequently assimilated and integrated into the personality by means of some quasi-artistic activity such as mandala painting. Jung only considers imagination in depth when he’s discussing alchemy, which he saw as the historical counterpart of his theory of the archetypes and the collective unconscious.

He wants to see the alchemical opus, bless him, as a ‘purely psychic’ activity in which the alchemists ‘project’ their ‘unconscious contents’ on to the substances and processes inside the Hermetic vessel. In the next breath he is endorsing the alchemical description of imagination as “the star in man, the celestial or supernatural body” (4) – an ‘astounding definition’, says Jung, which compels us to conceive of the opus not as a series of ‘immaterial phantoms’ but as something corporeal, a ‘subtle body’. The opus then is no more ‘projection’, with all its distinctly pejorative and hence misleading associations; rather it is an archetypal drama of sex, marriage, death and resurrection acted out by the sacred beings of the primary imagination on the stage of the alchemical retort: serpents and dragons, lions and eagles, kings and queens, suns and moons – all are orchestrated by that underlying spirit, that strange paradoxical godling Mercurius.

Imagination, says Jung, is “perhaps the most important key to the understanding of the opus”; it can only be “a concentrated extract of life forces, both physical and psychic”. It is the locus of reconciliation for all the oppositions and contradictions which inform the UFO experience; and as such it is analogous to, if not identical with, the collective unconscious where (as Dennis Stilling’s timely and enlightening essay (5) rightly points out) “at some point.,. the psychic meets the hylic.”

Although the alchemists thought of the primary imagination in the same way as the poets, they preferred (as I’ve already suggested) to personify it as Mercurius, ‘our mercury’, the ‘secret fire’ on which the whole work depends. He is the trickster and shape-shifter who is both light and dark, good and evil, male and female, celestial and terrestrial etc. – like the collective unconscious, whom he also of course personifies, he contains all the contraries. He is the quintessence of the four elements; he is both an aerial spirit of the Above and a chthonic spirit of the Below, yet he is also both spiritual and material, volatile and fixed. In the course of the work he manifests himself in a series of images from dragon to Philosophers’ Stone.
He is the trickster and shape-shifter who is both light and dark, good and evil, male and female, celestial and terrestrial etc. – like the collective unconscious, whom he also of course personifies, he contains all the contraries
Thus we notice that there aren’t a whole load of archetypes in the collective unconscious, as Jung’s model of the psyche would lead us to believe; there is only, as it were, one archetype, the mercurial imagination itself – which, unknowable in itself, can be inferred from its appearance in a number of archetypal images. One of these images is the `star’ (often associated with the Albedo, or whiteness, in the opus when Sol and Luna, Above and Below are united). In his essay on flying saucers, Jung noticed the mercurial nature of UFOs and their similarity, if only because of their roundness and luminosity, to this ‘star’ which is an image of the soul, the potential Self in which all opposites are transcendentally re-united as they are in the Stone.

Napoleon Buonaparte had a familiar spirit “which protected him, which guided him, as a daemon, and which at particular moments took on the shape of a shining sphere, which he called his star, or which, visited him in the figure of a dwarf clothed in red that warned him.” (6) Here we see that the imagination chooses an alternative, but equally fundamental way of representing itself – as a dwarf or homunculus more appropriate to warning than protecting; and this too, I suppose, is part of the function of diminutive ‘extraterrestrials’. They do not occupy UFOs; the are another manifestation of UFOs. Like anthropologists we must try to discern meaning in the relationships between the signs within the constellation of UFO imagery, rather than trying to isolate the signs and examine them out of context. For example we might say, by alchemical analogy, that aerial UFOs are to ‘landed extraterrestrials’ as Above is to Below. (I also suggest that since Mercurius is not only the spirit of both Above and Below, but also that which mediates between them in order to heal the rifts in existence, UFOs perform the same function by ‘coming down to earth from the heavens’)

At the risk of labouring this point I could cite another example which occurred to me when I came across an alchemical engraving from Michael Maier’s Atlanta fugiens, called ‘the rejected stone’. In this picture – of a road, a coastal inlet, a village, people walking, etc. – cubic ‘stones’ are seen on the road, on a, hill, in the water and, most strikingly, in the sky.

The idea is that the miraculous Prime Matter (which is also the ultima materia, the Philosophers’ Stone) is all around us, in earth, air and water (it is itself fire) yet we don’t see it or value it. It is Mercurius, who is the essence of each element and also their transcendent quintessence. It may be that, as spirit of air, he appears as a luminous disc and, as spirit of water, as a serpent or dragon; i.e. air is to water as UFOs are to lake/sea monsters. As spirit of earth, he might leave his signature in cornfields, particularly golden cornfields which have an affinity with another mercurial symbol, the sun (7). Thus: Sun : Gold :: Above : Below :: sky earth :: UFOs : cornfield circles. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mercurius appeared as a ‘mountain spirit’ in the shape of a large humanoid with lots of hair and big feet.

The Rejected Stone
Jung never entirely resolved his inner conflict between ‘alchemical’ thinking and `scientific’ thinking. Like us he clung to a particular historical and cultural model of the world, viz: the post-Cartesian dualistic model, as if it were somehow absolute, as if somehow the binary classifications subject/object, mind/matter, were truer than Above/Below, volatile/fixed; and he went on clinging to it even when his own empirical material from the unconscious indicated that the ‘imaginative’ model is supraordinate to the scientific and is more true because more universal. He never consistently conceded that the distinction between `inner’ and `outer’, for instance, is only a spatial metaphor derived from Descartes’ model and, as such, is equivalent to the spatial metaphor Above/Below derived from the pre-Cartesian model. The vertical axis, as it were, has simply become horizontal.

It’s perfectly valid to change metaphors. The distinction we make between subject and object is useful as long as (a) we do not regard it as final, and (b) we apply it correctly. For example, what I have been pleased to call, for the sake of convenience, the ‘sacred beings of the primary imagination’, have often been labelled ‘subjective’. In fact they are always ‘objective’ – regardless of whether they are perceived inwardly (as dreams, say) or outwardly as visions and apparitions. Similarly we are free to talk of `projections’ providing we don’t start talking nonsense about ‘subjective projections’ – they are by definition ‘thrown forward’, i.e. objective. Nor do we throw them forward – it does – the imagination. (The notion of projection is a red herring, as if projections were somehow unreal. I prefer to say that the imagination imagines, i.e. there is that within or without us, or both, that produces images!)

If we compare Valerie of Peckham’s misidentification of a planet with a spacecraft, with (I choose at random)Siragusa’s ‘luminous disc, the colour of mercury (8) we shouldn’t say that the first is more subjective and the second more objective, nor that the first is ‘only’ a projection while the second is (let’s say) a vision; nor that the first is less true than the second. Both encountered sacred beings. Both responded with the requisite ‘passion of awe’, Their experi-ences are the same in kind the same, even, as St Paul’s encounter with Christ on the Damascus road) but they differ in degree. At best the kind of distinction we can make is to say that Val’s experience was more personal than Siragusa’s, or that Siragusa’s was more universal than Val’s (9) or that one was more direct than the other. In these senses we can say that Siragusa’s experience and St Paul’s) was more real than Val’s because (to use spatial metaphors) it was ‘deeper’ or `higher’.

Alchemy, Jungian psychology and ufology have this in common: that it is largely futile to approach them or seek to ‘explain’ them with a set of ‘scientific’ presuppositions. In truth they are themselves an expression of the scientific method’s limitations. The sacred beings appear in proportion as we neglect the imagination or imagine one-sidedly. Of the three, alchemy is the most sophisticated because its practitioners by and large grasped the contradictions inherent in the Great Work. They never emphasised (as Jung does) psyche or spirit at the expense of matter, but recognised that each informs the other: “Make the volatile fixed and the fixed volatile” was a favourite slogan.


We can predict his appearance as a sacred being
a tall angelic ‘star’ person, say, as elusive as quicksilver
who warns us not to corrupt atoms under the age of consent

They would never have asserted that UFOs were either psychic manifestations or nuts and bolts spacecraft; they would always go for a ‘both-and’, insisting that the two conceptions bore the same relationship to each other as volatile bears to fixed. Similarly the ET hypothesis is to the earth-lights hypothesis as Above is to Below. UFOs are both from the far reaches of space and from the earth’s depths, both psychic and hylic, because they are shining examples of the imaginative power of Mercurius in whom all contradictions coinhere. His realm is where UFOs come from. We can’t think about this realm in terms of dualisms or of cause and effect, but in terms of relationships through analogy, affinity through meaning and correspondence (‘as above, so below’).

In other words we have to think like tribal people or poets or, preferably, alchemists in order to understand UFOs. Fortunately this is not too difficult: every time we speak of a thought coming ‘out of the blue’ from above, or of a feeling ‘rising up’ from below, we are in part speaking out of the pre-scientific perception of the world, and this is what UFOs have come to remind us of. They present us with the possibility of participating in that deeply satisfying, mysterious, imaginative gnosis which, far removed from the current fad for impoverished cognition, we have somehow mislaid along with our sense of awe.

Broadly speaking, alchemy was a work of the Below. It concentrated on matter (or the spirit imprisoned in matter) in order to compensate for the over-valuation of the Above, i.e. the stress laid in the Christian tradition on soul and spirit at the expense of body and matter (Nature). In our century the reverse is true: the natural sciences – to which alchemy in part gave rise – undervalue the Above, spirit, the spiritual side of Nature. We are reduced a to dispirited materialism. Thus we can expect a compen satory return to the things of the Above, an inversion of the alchemical myth, in which Mercurius appears as an aerial spirit, more volatile than fixed, who deplores our ignorance of his presence in Nature and protests the violence done to him. (10)

We can predict his appearance as a sacred being – a tall angelic ‘star’ person, say, as elusive as quicksilver – who warns us not to corrupt atoms under the age of consent and not to abuse a natural world which is to him as body is to soul. When we go on producing atom bombs, we compel him (or her, of course) to be more insistent. We shouldn’t be surprised if we are forcibly abducted in to the Above and treated as we treat him – as passive, soulless objects of scientific experimentation. Mercurius isn’t being vengeful; we’re not being punished. He’s simply warning us that he will redress any imbalance in himself, against our will if necessary; and, because he’s not separate from us but is both the ground of our being (Below) and our transcendent goal (Above) he is also protecting us from the lack of equilibrium in ourselves.

  1. EVANS, Hilary, Visions, Apparitions, Alien Visitors, Thorsons, Wellingborough, 1984.
  2. In the thirteenth chapter of Biographia Literary (London, 1817)
  3. See the essay ‘Making, Knowing and Judging’ in the Dyer’s Hand, (London, 1963)
  4. RULAND, Martin, Lexicon of Alchemy, (London, 1622), The quotations from Jung can be found in Psychology and Alchemy, p, 255 ff.
  5. In Magonia, no. 28, p. 6.
  6. Quoted in JAFFE, Aniela, Apparitions, (University of Dallas, 1973) p,108.
  7. The symbol for both sun and gold is O, a perfect example of which can be found in the photo of a cornfield reproduced in Phenomena (London, 1988)
  8. Quoted in EVANS, Hilary, Gods, Spirits, Cosmic Guardians, (Wellingborough, 1987) p,124.
  9. i.e., the two experiences can be compared in a system of analogy, viz, Val of Peckham’s spacecraft : Siragusa’s disc :: personal : impersonal :: individual : collective :: indirect :: direct.
  10. The Virgin Mary is pluckily competing with UFOs in our time, As the Spirit of Nature – ‘Dame Kind’ or Mother Nature – she frequently cones down from Above to warn us (with a banality equal to that of any star person) against abusing nature and, probably, to refute the dogma of the Assumption by which, in 1950, she was consigned to the Above, out of harm’s way.