FANTAST IN FOCUS: BECCA TARNAS
Becca Tarnas’s research focuses on two of modernity’s greatest visionaries, J.R.R. Tolkien and Carl Jung. An alumna of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Becca is currently completing her doctorate at the California Institute of Integral Studies in the Ecology, Spirituality and Religion program. She wears many hats. While playing the role of an Odysseus and navigating the wayward oceans of Jung’s and Tolkien’s literature, Becca also works as a counsellor, lecturer, and artist.
The Custodian: I’m sure you’re tired of the PhD ‘elevator pitch’—but would you mind giving us a layperson’s overview of your dissertation focus?
Becca Tarnas: I am writing my dissertation on a surprising parallel, or synchronicity, between The Red Book of C.G. Jung and the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, who presented his books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as translations from what he called The Red Book of Westmarch. Beginning in 1913, both Jung and Tolkien began to undergo profound encounters with imagination that they each recorded in artistic and literary form. For Jung these experiences of the deep psyche became the basis of his psychology, while for Tolkien his imaginal encounters became the seeds of his Middle-Earth legendarium. My dissertation research is exploring these uncanny parallels in timing and content to come to a greater understanding of the ontology of imagination.
C: What inspired you to start searching for connections between the works of Tolkien and Jung?
B: I began to explore this topic simply through the parallel of the titles of their books since they each made a Red Book. I knew Tolkien’s work quite well, having been an avid explorer of Middle-Earth since age nine, and when I first began to look through Jung’s Red Book I felt like I was looking through a book from Tolkien’s world. The style of calligraphy, the ornamented letters, even the style in illustrations were similar, and sometimes the content as well: dragons, magnificent trees, and so forth. But I still did not know there was anything beyond a surface similarity. It was only when I discovered that Jung’s descent into his Red Book period began in 1913 with several powerful visions, and that Tolkien had also begun to illustrate images of a descent into imagination beginning at the exact same time, that I thought to look deeper—and sure enough I continued to find more and more striking similarities in content and experience.
C: Do you find that your background in archetypal theory and psychological astrology helps to contribute to your research?
B: I have certainly found looking at the world transits during the period when Jung and Tolkien began to have their imaginal experiences to be highly illuminating, as is looking at their individual natal charts and personal transits. Drawing on archetypal astrology has given me a much greater perspective on the energies working through creative individuals, and helps with understanding and interpreting the material that they bring forth by viewing it through an archetypal lens.
C: On that note, you’ve written quite a lot about the codependent relationship between physical cosmology (planetary bodies and ecology) and patterns of creative thought. What would you say are the benefits of having this kind of holistic view as an educator?
B: The primary gift I have found of recognizing the archetypal correspondence between planetary bodies and human and Earth events is understanding what this indicates about the nature of our universe. Seeing how the archetypal energies associated with each of the planets in our solar system come into relationship with each other, and are expressed multivalently in events on Earth—whether, cultural, political, economic, artistic, ecological, emotional, psychological, or relational—and the precise yet poetically diverse manner in which it occurs, gives one a sense of divine numinosity in the way “everything breathes together”, as Plotinus said long ago. Such a perspective, based on continuous, empirical, astrological evidence, allows one to break out of the constraints of a reductionistic, mechanistic materialist world view, and recognise that the cosmos into which we as humans beings are awakening is vastly more sentient, intelligent—caring even—than the modern Western scientific paradigm has allowed us to acknowledge.
C: What’s an “imaginal ecologist” and what role do you see these figures playing in our future society?
B: I would say an imaginal ecologist is anyone who recognises the important interconnecting role that imagination has to play in the human-Earth relationship. Ecology is not just a biological science studying ecosystems, although that is a very important part of the discipline, but a study of relationship and interconnection. As one of my teachers Joanna Macy put it, one cannot see relationship with the physical eyes, but rather with the eye of imagination. Imagination allows us to see more deeply to what is not simply on the surface, and to see into the potential of what might be—both negatively and positively. Imagination can allow us to see the potentially dire negative effects of our current exploitative, extractivist, capitalistic relationship to the Earth, and it can also allow us to perceive what a turn toward a future in which humans live as part of the Earth’s ecosystems might look like, rather than remain in denial of our intricate interconnected relationship with this planet. Imagination opens up the possibility of that future. I would say an imaginal ecologist is one who dreams, but a dreamer who brings her imaginal visions into reality through dedicated action.
C: There’s so much multiformity in California’s landscapes. Did you have any formative experiences with the culture or geography that first made you want to learn more about spirituality and consciousness?
B: I was privileged enough to spend my formative years in the Big Sur landscape on the coast of California, a place I still hold to be one of the most beautiful and dramatic on the face of the Earth. Big Sur is a landscape of plunging cliffs and eternal ocean, cool redwood canyons and dry golden fields and hills. It is a place that feels desperately alive and awakening to the imagination. Such a landscape gave me a profound sense of awe and wonder at the dynamic beauty this planet brings forth, a beauty that inherently reverberates with its own innate spiritual power. So I could say I was born into the right place and conditions to explore the disciplines I have come to study. But I was also born into that place because it is the landscape my parents chose to call home at the time, and they also provided a container and context that gave me permission to explore the areas of study I have been drawn to.
C: You’ve written plays, poems, and I think you’ve even appeared in the recent film, Planetary. What’s your approach to the performance arts? Is Rudolf Steiner an influence?
B: From my early teens through college my dream was to be a stage and film actor, and I pursued a degree in Theatre Arts at Mount Holyoke College (alongside a degree in Environmental Studies) where I was able not only to perform, but to write plays, and even to direct a couple shows. For my grade school and high school education I attended the Waldorf School in San Francisco, based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, where we would perform a play every year. I realised through acting I could become anyone I wanted to be—it was a place where my imagination could find its fullest expression. But once I started to learn about the ecological crisis I realized that this was where I most wanted to direct my creative energies. I believe theatre, and all the arts, can be a powerful medium for telling the story of our Earth, for building a relationship with the planet, rather than presenting the ecological crisis as a series of facts and calculations. Art conveys emotions and values, which I feel is what is largely missing from the current ecological debate.
I will always be drawn to express myself through art, although I am no longer pursuing being an actor. Perhaps one day I will have the opportunity to be a director, who knows. But in the meantime I have found that my years in the theatre find a place when it comes to public speaking, where I am given the opportunity to be, in a sense, on stage. The difference is the character I am playing is myself, and my script is the ideas and images with which I am engaging.
C: What books would you recommend to those who want to learn more about consciousness studies?
B: This is a hard one to narrow down to! Some that come to mind are James Hillman’s Re-Visioning Psychology, Chris Bache’s Dark Night, Early Dawn, Richard Tarnas’s Cosmos and Psyche, Jorge Ferrer’s Re-Visioning Transpersonal Theory and Catherine Keller’s From A Broken Web. I would also highly recommend C.G. Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections and Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction. Finally, because I see imagination as central to understanding consciousness, and fiction as one of the gateways to imagination (or the road to Faërie, as Tolkien might put it) I would recommend reading great fiction as a form of studying consciousness.
C: Apart from your dissertation and your “Women of Words” series, what other projects are you currently working on?
B: Alongside working on my dissertation I just took over as the editor, along with Grant Maxwell, of Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology. The journal was founded in 2007 by Keiron Le Grice, Rod O’Neal, and Bill Streett, among others in the Archetypal Research Collective (ARC) in the San Francisco Bay Area. They produced four beautiful issues of Archai, laying the foundations of the discipline of Archetypal Cosmology, based primarily on the research of Richard Tarnas. Now Grant Maxwell and I have taken over as the editorial team and are in the process of putting together the fifth issue of Archai, due out in late 2015 or early 2016.
After my dissertation is complete I have several other projects in the docket including a book on Archetypal Ecology, laying out the correlations between the planetary transits and the environmental movement, as well as ecological events beyond the human cultural sphere, and a book that I am co-writing with my partner, Matt Segall, on Archetypal Cosmology and the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.
You can find out more about Becca’s work at her website.