A Psychological Perspective on Place*

                                                                                                                                               by David Russell # 

*David Russell is an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.

# An earlier version of this paper was prepared for the University of Western Sydney - Hawkesbury Colloquium, Sense of Place: Perspectives on Australian Landscapes and Environmental Values, 5-8 December, 1996.

          No place is a ‘place’ until things that have happened in it are remembered as being important to our cultural life. It seems to be a characteristic human need to name some places as possessing a special       quality … as even possessing a spirit … a genius loci, a quality which evokes an altogether other or deeper dimension, a ‘spirit of the place'

A Cultural Archaeology 

            How might such an event come about and how might it express a basic human need? We have in the Judeo-Christian culture the famous story of Jacob wrestling with God as he makes the return journey to meet his brother Esau after a long period of separation. There is already a sense of tension and expectation in the air, after all, this is the Jacob who obtained his father’s blessing by cunning and dishonesty, a blessing that was due to the elder son Esau. It is night and Jacob has sent his two wives, his two slave-girls and eleven children, together with all his possessions, across to the other side of the river. Jacob is left totally alone as if he had a premonition that something awe-full was about to happen. And sure enough it did! For the entire night Jacob wrestled with God although the text avoids using the name of Yahweh and the unknown antagonist will not give his name. What is clear about this story is that Jacob recognises the supernatural character of his adversary and extorts a blessing from him; Jacob holds fast (all night!) to this unknown combatant and forces from him a blessing. Given that Jacob is a patriarch symbolising all those that would follow him, the story suggests that the blessing is there for anyone else who is prepared to struggle with the unknown through the dark night of the senses. This place by the river can no longer be just a literal place. This particular place is now a place with a spiritual significance. It’s the place where one goes to re-experience a mystery … a place that symbolises the boundary between the visible and invisible worlds … and by being open to this experience, receive a blessing.


                                                                                       Jacob wresting the angel 

                                                                                                                                                       Engraving by Merian, Matheus the Elder (1627)

                                                                                                                                                          from  Biblical Art on the Webb; Iconea Bl.   

A psychological story 


         My use of this story is psychological, not theological. It is the life of the imagination that seeks, no matter in what circumstances the body finds itself in, to create a story in poetic form, that expresses both the concrete and the mysterious faces of human experience. Two further aspects of this story need to be told before a fuller psychological meaning can unfold. One is that Jacob was wounded in the hip by this night-long encounter with the numinous, he left this place limping! Surely this is a reminder that some places have the capacity to change us and that such changes are not always perceived as an immediate boon to the body. The other is that Jacob named this place. This was to be a place to which he (or his tribe) would return when necessary. He marked it out as special by giving it the name of ‘Peniel’ meaning ‘face of God.’ What a wonderful metaphor for our experience of the boundary or gateway between the visible and invisible, of our experience of longing and belonging, and of our experience of that night-long wrestle with the unknown … the God who can never be seen face-to-face by any human and still live and whose true name can never be known.

    For any place to have psychological meaning then it needs to be both available to everyday living (tangible to the senses) and to have the potential for deepening (capable of triggering the imagination). It is not the unique or special physical aspects of a place, per se, that confers the psychological significance, it is what happens or has happened there. Much the same can be said of moving from a surface experience to a psychologically deepening experience. James Hillman speaks eloquently about us as “sensuously imagining animals”[i] with the ability to see into and value the particular, the physical and the sensuous as an event, or a place, ensouled … of experiencing soul in the world. He is continually urging us to live a world ensouled by living in an “enduring, intimate conversation with matter”[ii] and not to take things literally. When we take thing literally, we stop imagining what lies behind and within our thoughts, our fantasies, our behaviours.

   Yet I am reminded of Patricia Berry’s statement that “one has to be unpsychological most of the time in order to be psychological some of the time.”[iii] Surely this reinforces the notion that only some places can be special places … places with a mythic significance … and that what we need is to be mindful of an embodied place which resonates with desires, hopes, and fears of past, and present.


[i] James Hillman, Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account, Dallas: Spring Publications, 1983, p.13.

[ii] James Hillman, ìAnima Mundi: The Return of the Soul to the World,î in Spring 1982, Dallas: Spring Publications, p.89.

[iii] Patricia Berry, Echo and Beauty in Carl Gustav Jung: Critical Assessments, edited by Renos K. Papadopoulos, Volume 11; The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, London: Routledge, 1992, p. 424.


                                                                                Wrestling of Jacob and the Angel

                                                                                                                     by Marc Chagall, Oil (1960-66)


                                                                                                                                           Museé National Message Biblique Marc Chagall,

                                                                                                                                              Nice, France

Imagination and Place


   In traditional societies, the rites that accompany birth, death, puberty, marriage are treated with enormous respect. Christopher Alexander and his colleagues, in adopting an architecture and planning perspective, argue that such “rites, in one form or another, are supported by parts of the physical environment which have the character of gates.”[i] These authors go on to say that “it is essential that each person have the opportunity to enter into some kind of social communion with his fellows at the times when he himself or his friends pass through these critical points in their lives. And this social communication at this moment needs to be rooted in some place which is recognised as a kind of spiritual gateway for these events.”[ii] This metaphor of ‘spiritual gateway’ is, as it were, a double metaphor. The gateway joins the physical characteristics of a specific place to these key rites of passage thus creating a connection to the primary elements of earth, fire, water and air. The other is a psychological connection joining these literal rites of passage with all their symbolic reoccurrences in our day-to-day living.

      For the imagination to engage with a place so that a deep psychological significance is established, it seems that we need to take up a particular stance, or undergo a particular preparation, if we are to perceive beyond what is immediately tangible to the senses. There are plenty of historical examples of this imperative. “In all cultures it seems that whatever it is that is holy will only be felt as holy, if it is hard to reach, if it requires layers of access, waiting, levels of approach, a gradual unpeeling, gradual revelation, passage through a series of gates.”[iii] Again, it is important not to take this imagery of gates too literally. We do not have to reinvent the Inner City of Beijing, or the seven waiting rooms that prepare one for a Papal audience, or the stepped pyramids of the Aztecs in order to create a psychology readiness. While this layering, or nesting of precincts, seems to correspond to a fundamental aspect of the human character, it is the step-by-step process of our imagination that will take us to an other place, a place of echoing possibilities. 


           Echoing possibilities, where certain voices remain silent and others are amplified, excite the imagination. And as Gaston Bachelard reminds us “Imagination is not, as its etymology would suggest, the faculty of forming images of reality; rather it is the faculty of forming images which go beyond reality, which sing reality.”[iv] He goes no the say that “If the present image does not recall an absent one, if an occasional image does not give rise to a swarm of aberrant images, there is no imagination.”[v]

           A psychological place, like a ‘true’ poem, finds “a way to integrate the hesitations and ambiguities which alone can free us from realism, allow us to dream.”[vi] It is as if a psychological landscape is a dream experience before becoming a conscious spectacle. We look with a feeling of beauty and deep significance, only at those landscapes which we have first seen in dreams (personal or cultural dreams).


[i] Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, & Murray Silverstein, A Pattern Language, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977, p.332.

[ii] ibid.,p.332

[iii] ibid.,p.333

[iv] Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie: Selections from Gaston Bachelard, Translated by Colette Gaudin, Dallas: Spring Publications, 1987, p.15.

[v] ibid., p.19

[vi] ibid., p.32

Body and Place 

             The imagination that I am referring to is not what Naomi Goldenberg calls … an ‘out-of-body fantasy.’ [i] No! It is as embodied as life itself and, as with any other part of daily living, it is always contingent on human circumstance.

    In giving such a critical role to imagination it is important to stress that I am not advocating any notion of transcendence as might be found in a theological position. Transcendence is a wish for something beyond body, beyond time, and beyond specific relationships to life, this is not the embodied psychology that I am wanting to express. A sense of place, as an imaginative event, is experienced in the body, everything happens in the body, including our most fanciful imagination and our deepest reverie. A sense of place is not being used as a mystifying abstraction, rather, it is part of our day-to-day relationships with one another, with our broader environment, and with ourselves. Imagining is what the body does, it is an essential characteristic of the body, and it is a sensuous and physical experience.

      In arguing the merits of an embodied appreciation of place, I am unashamedly offering a materialistic position. I’m impressed by the psychoanalytical dictum that nothing is metaphysical without it first being physical. In our rush to acquire absolute answers to complex questions, what is judged to be religious knowledge is often seen as coming from an external source, located somewhere outside of the body. Such a failure to give due credit to the mythopoetic capacity of the imagination is, in effect, a flight from the body.

     The bleakness and grimness of the environmental crisis can lead to a sense of the world being doomed, or at least, on the road to destruction. A purely perceptual view of the world is a single-eyed view, a view without depth, a view impoverished by an absence of an imaginative perspective.

     It is understandable, but I would argue unhelpful, that so many people see the necessity of believing in another world - a world of a supernatural entity or experience - a world positioned outside of the physical, human universe.

      Naomi Goldenberg asks if all this materialism (the praise of matter), of necessity, leads to hopelessness? “Just how hopeless is the body?”[i] she asks. Does the flesh need salvation? Or is it more a matter of granting due respect to our corporeal imagination. The error, I would suggest, is more along the lines of not listening carefully to what the body has to say and not seeing the body as the matrix of all human knowing and action. 

   Goldenberg sees the body as charged with an energy that is constantly expressing somatic history (its intellect), and to this I would add, an energy that is constantly expressing longing for wholeness or a return to the Garden of Paradise (its imagination). Culturally sustainable action would seem to only result form an elegant braiding of the two.


[i] ibid., p.176.

Beauty and Place 


  Patricia Berry, in teasing apart and then braiding together a psychology of surroundings, has as her key mythological figure, Echo. Echo is a nymph and as such is associated with rivers, valleys, trees, rocks and mountains. Echo’s longing for fulfilment, for consummation, is never satisfied, at least not in the ordinary sense. But out of this failure to find sensual gratification comes fulfilment of a deeper sort, an identification and connection with the ‘soul in the world,’ that age-old experience of anima mundi. Echo’s beauty is contrasted to that of Hera’s (queen of heaven and partner of Zeus). Beauty in the realm of Hera is what is accepted as beautiful by the outside world, by the social order of how things should be and how they should be placed. Echo’s beauty is more insubstantial, subtle, not immediately apparent. The aesthetic of Echo is found in the holes, the hollows, and the spaces ‘in between,’ all of which are rich in echoing possibilities.

     This experience doesn’t come easily as “Echo’s beauty is equally a suffering and a certain passivity.”[i] Such was her suffering and her longing that she wasted away and all that was left was her voice, her bones having been turned to stone. No longer is the concrete physical her real presence, but now it is the air that is real, real with the power to echo. The beauty that falls from the air, that speaks from “the nooks and crannies of a cave, the undulations of a valley, the precise jagged points where rock emerges and recedes,”[ii] these now constitute the echoing possibilities. The air, the stone, the water, all have a psychological potency that is available to humanity … if they proceed through the gateway and if they respond to Echo’s invitation. “It’s like hearing the echo of soul embodied. It’s like hearing a voice in the nature of things - a knowledge in the stone of the bones.”[iii]


[i] Berry, Echo and Beauty, p.431.

[ii] ibid., p.428.

[iii] ibid., p.432.


                                                                           Echo and Narcissus 


                                                                                                                          by John Waterhouse(Oil,1903)

                                                                                                                              Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool,UK 



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