Entelechy: (Aristotelian metaphysics) The complete realization and final form of some potential concept or function; the conditions under which a potential thing becomes actualized.
Trees are things. Chairs are things. Their potential is actualized. But the process of going from tree to chair, potential to actual, always begins with an idea. I've been inspired by many writers and thinkers throughout the years of developing these chairs, books and conversations that have sparked my creative urge. This weblog section is a forum for exploring these ideas. It will also chronicle my chair building adventures. Watch for updates on camping trips!
Trees have shaped humanity’s development since our beginning, serving as material for tools and weapons, shelter, as well as mythological symbols. Of all the natural resources in this world, trees have taken a special place; we use them to make fire to warm ourselves and cook our food; we use them to build structures to keep us sheltered from the weather; we honor them in religious observances and bestow magical powers to them. Trees have come to symbolize unity, or more precisely, the process of unifying polar opposites: sky and earth, or masculine and feminine, the divine and the mundane, life and death, God and humanity, our individual selves and the eternity dwelling inside us—trees symbolize the bringing together of opposites and the healing and growth we feel as two disparate shards of our true selves sit together under the shade of the crown of a tree in full bloom.
“Actually, for ourselves as well as for primitive man, there is not a tree object outside and a tree image inside, which may be regarded as photographs of one another. Their personality as a whole is oriented toward the one reality and its primary experience of the intrinsically unknown part of that reality that we call a tree is symbolic… The tree outside is just as much an image as is the tree inside. To the tree outside “corresponds” an unrepresentable part of the unitary reality, which can be experienced only with relative adequacy in the image; while to the tree inside corresponds a part of the experiencing, living substance, which again is experienced only with relative adequacy. We cannot derive the inward partial tree image from the tree outside, for we experience the latter too as an image; nor can we derive the outward partial tree image from the projection of an inward image, since this inward partial image is just as primary as the outward one. Both spring from the primary symbolic image—tree—which is more adequate to the unitary reality than are its partial derivatives, the inward and outward image relating to the secondary divided world.” —Erich Neumann, “Creative Man and Transformation”
If you’re still with me, you are a self-selected group of fellow nerds. If you don’t know the name of the author, he’s a post-Jungian psychologist and one of the most original thinkers I’ve ever come across. This is taken from an essay from his, Art and the Creative Unconscious, a fascinating collection of his thoughts on the source and nature of creativity as well as the psychological experience of the creative process, which he views as akin to what some would call a spiritual experience. This passage struck me for the obvious horticultural reason that he’s talking about trees. And I love trees. But I’m drawn to his thinking overall because he explains things that have plagued me for years in a way that I can understand.
Symbols. When I was about 13 years old, I was doodling on a piece of paper one day, just any kind of meaningless shapes, not really thinking about what I was doing. I was in Jr High School at the time and was studying WW2 in my history class, so one of the images that was floating around my consciousness was the Nazi Swastika, and I happened to sketch one out in my doodling. A few minutes later, my Dad, who never expressed opinions or emotions very strongly, uncharacteristically became unglued over what he saw me sketch. You could get him to talk about the Nazi’s and how evil they were, but it wasn’t until he was confronted with the symbol that he had any type of visceral reaction. Of course, I was filled with guilt about what I did, but a part of me held onto the experience of how my Dad reacted, the power that the symbol had over his being, not just his thoughts but his whole self. I sensed something powerful in that, how symbols affect us.
Symbols exude power, and that’s easily seen in the tears of a person prostrate below a cross, but aside from the emotional effect, symbols create the means of humanity’s ability to perceive or understand anything; they are the underpinnings of our language and speech and even shape the way we think. Symbols are not mere sign-posts that point to some other meaning; they embody that meaning as well. If that sounds like I’m overselling, keep reading.
For Neumann, the experience of the world has two parts, the inside and the outside. The tree. It exists. It’s there. It grows and changes and moves around when you shake it, or cut off it’s branches, or scrape the branches and cut them into pieces and glue them together to build a chair. The chair holds me up when I sit in it; I have an experience of the chair and can’t deny its reality. That’s the tree outside, but our experience of it will always be connected with how we’ve experienced trees in the past, and with how we feel about these experiences, and what we know about trees, what we’ve heard, and not just trees but maybe rocks too, and then whole mountains, valleys and meadows until we realize that it’s not just trees but the entire universe itself that I interact in and have built up experiences and all of those galactic variables make up the kaleidoscope that is my perception. Your perception is different.
The outside tree is unattainable. Our perception of it is necessarily filtered through consciousness, so by the time it reaches our thoughts, it has been altered in a myriad of ways. The inside tree meets the outside tree halfway, and it’s in that ability to hold both inside and outside at the same time, to unify the opposites, it’s that tendency that energizes the whole self.
In this passage, Neumann stresses a unitary reality, one not divided up between inside and outside, nor denying the reality of each experience. This reality “abides” in the symbol, a primary reality not directly perceived by humans, but existing as constellations of archetypal patterns in the collective unconscious. (The human psyche being essentially composed of three parts: the consciousness, the personal unconscious, and the deeper underlying collective unconscious.) We experience this collective unconscious many times in ways colored by our cultural norms and receiving identity in our consciousness (our “ego” or persona) that we acquire from the cultural canon of our upbringing. Creativity, as well as neurosis (sometimes hard to distinguish in one’s own lifetime), results from a confrontation or irruption of certain repressed constellations of psychic energy that no longer find expression in the accepted norms of the cultural canon. Creative people, or neurotics, have an itch they can’t seem to scratch, a seemingly strong connection or sensitivity to the inner workings of the unconscious, and when the accepted cannon becomes too one-sided, disconnected from the unitary reality (as in the age of Reason whereby one function of consciousness, namely Rationality, tries to “take over” and claim superiority over other modes of perception), the collective unconscious rumbles and forces begin to take shape to create more balance. Those forces are the source of creativity, and the creative person moves in response to those stirrings; in an archetypal sense, the hero accepts the call to action.
Symbols are created, new perceptions of archetypal patterns emerge, and the cultural canon adapts to the shifting needs of the times. And the intrinsically unknown of that unitary reality comes out to breathe fresh air. The tree is once again experienced both symbolically and actually, and just as it brings together the sky and the ground in its roots and branches, it unifies our perception and fulfills the human spiritual need for wholeness. Just as, in my faith, Christ unifies heaven and earth by his sacrifice on a tree, thus bringing salvation, or wholeness, to all.