A Portrait of Harry Prochaska

by Michael Flanagin, Ph.D.

I first met Harry Prochaska twenty-five years ago when he accompanied his friend Richard Stein, a San Francisco Jungian analyst, as a guest lecturer in the latter's graduate course, Jungian Psychotherapy. He arrived with a carousel of slides from an archive housed in the San Francisco Jung Institute that he called ARAS, which Richard wanted us to learn about as a way to understand the role of amplification in Jungian practice. The mysteries of archetypal symbolism evidently were more intelligible if seen with one's eyes than fathomed with one's mind, but for all that, his array of images from alchemy, Hindu temples, ancient Greek myths, and modern art excited as many questions as they answered. To my mind, this was the most interesting part of the course, the heart of Jungian psychology-images that made one feel that one has come home, or found one's own path. And the elderly man who was custodian of this curious parade of carefully selected images played a welcoming role in drawing me closer to this collection, and using it to gain an understanding of how the deepest secrets of our nature can only be portrayed in symbols, and always have been. I think any vague aspiration to become a clinician myself expired that night: archetypal symbolism was what I had been seeking right along and here was a mentor who dwelt in its midst. I learned later he was a retired professor of humanities, a father of three sons, a man educated in all the arts, especially music, which he played delicately on a harpsichord with hands that seemed too large for a baroque keyboard, but which he shifted about with an allegro sensitivity.
After that night, I remained intrigued by this unforgettable presentation, and when the time came to embark on my doctoral dissertation on archetypal symbolism, I made my first appointment in ARAS to ask Harry if he would consider serving on my committee. To my pleasant surprise, he consented. On my next visit, Harry recommended the serpent as the focus of my proposed dissertation. I initially stepped back from the prospect of such an unappealing topic. But Harry's wise counsel not only rewarded me in the end with the insight that we must avoid fixed interpretations of even the most ancient and perennial symbols (for the snake symbolizes multiple dynamics in the unconscious psyche and even it requires a cultural context to decipher which one is at play), but I was also given a hint into the even more valuable role of initiation in Jungian psychology that linked our work in ARAS with its extraordinary founder in San Francisco, Joseph L. Henderson. As Harry's own analyst and mentor, and author of a seminal book on initiation, Dr. Henderson's presence could be felt through the way Harry approached the symbolic questions that all visitors to ARAS brought, recognizing that they were more than academic inquiries. He understood that archetypes can unfold within us to initiate us to levels of inner life in keeping with our ultimate nature and he offered a humane manner to soften the unsettling power such weighty transformations can bring to our everyday lives.
Visiting ARAS for the first time made me marvel at how many symbolic "bits of information" could be stored in a single metal case of photographic slides along with the compact files of folders that amplified them, just as I marveled at how much anecdotal detail Harry stored beneath his gleaming forehead, fringed with snow-white hair, and just as we all marveled in those years to learn that the entire archive, and therefore the main visual history of human symbolism, could be stored on a single compact disk the size of a coffee-table coaster. Good tempered even when busy with deadlines, Harry also shared amusing dreams about the entire contents of the archive spilling down on him like the deck of cards in Alice in Wonderland. And there is something amusing, ultimately, about organizing the immense productivity of the archetypal imagination from Paleolithic artifacts to Picasso in orderly cultural categories and under the motifs by which images are catalogued in the archive, as the following selection from his book demonstrates so well. His book is deceptively short, but only as I prepared its index did I realize how much cultural symbolism and psychological significance he had managed to condense into its pages. Likewise, I occasionally ponder over his sepia ink painting of a serpent that he gave me when I completed my dissertation, in which he expressed so much about the psyche in a single serpentine line: the psyche's ability to conceal itself, to spring out suddenly, to conjure multiple meanings in one ambiguous image, to warn, to teach, to tempt, to remind us…
Out of the thousands of images that ARAS has archived and interpreted (or more accurately, has provided informed material to enable users to make their own interpretations), Harry had a few of his own favorites. Such choices reveal much about our individual nature and inner life. He was particularly struck by an Egyptian relief that showed the Pharaoh Sensuret in profile gazing into the eyes of the god Ptah, who embraced him. Another (referred to in the following text) was the classical sculpture of an aged Silenus, a forest god, cradling the infant Dionysus in his arms, whom he watches over with gentle protectiveness. Both images inhabit common human postures to hint at a higher identity with a transcendent life and the impulse to guard those coming into an awareness of it. I recall how one time Harry surprised me with the observation that he could sense in me a longing for transcendence struggling to take root somewhere. That is an uncommon remark for any of us to hear, but most of all it is a remark that could only be spoken by someone who had not only felt the restless pressure of a similar longing, but indeed, someone who had finally discovered its obscure object. As first his assistant curator and then his successor as curator in ARAS, I also recall his late attention to Navajo sandpaintings and the Chinese temples and gardens he visited with his travel companion, the San Francisco analyst, Mary Jo Spencer. Still making contributions to the archive, by that point he was well on eighty.
The last occasion I saw Harry was when he called to offer me some of his precious library volumes, as he thinned out his collection to prepare to move nearer his son. Wanting now to live more simply, he mentioned he was keeping only the bare essence-he pointed out a volume or two of Buddhist classics and Jung's autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Having recently survived an auto collision with a streetcar and a nearly fatal heart-attack, Harry was bent over and visibly aging. His appearance reminded me how in Japan the elderly are likened to the crab, with their bent backs and wisdom hidden beneath their shells. Now dressed for the task at hand in a white baker's apron hung around his neck, his spirit was undiminished. As I drove off with my stack of his books, he silently waved to me on the sidewalk with his large, eloquent hand and his unfailing smile of life-affirming kindness. It was my last encounter.
In his final year or two, Harry lived somewhat farther from the archive and many months went by without my seeing him or hearing from him. One day in winter, I became recurrently aware of his presence, first in the form of a flood of memories that broke into my prosaic tasks, then culminated the next day in a fantasy of actually being Harry, or inhabiting him somehow, as if his presence coincided with my own in the odd way inner events defy physical reason. The telephone rang with a call from the Executive Director of the Jung Institute, Stephen Manning, kindly informing me that Harry had died a couple of days earlier. The demanding fantasies ceased, replaced by retrospection, but I was grateful for the days between his death and my notification of it, so I could ponder one last time Harry's anchor in transcendental life, and his generous way of communicating out of it-if I chose to look at this curious episode that way. Enriched by our long association in the archive, I did choose to look at it in a way that favored meaning over spurious coincidence. It made me recall the extraordinary passage with which his mentor, Joseph Henderson, closes his Thresholds of Initiation: "All deeply committed individual religious men maintain that [initiation] goes on periodically throughout life and into death, with no end in sight."