The sketch came to mind several times while watching last night's film, in which stairs and staircases ended up on the couch. As James Hillman (psychologist, writer, and the series' father figure) expatiates on the given subject, the camera watches respectfully, occasionally cutting away to other interviewees or images from film and visual art.
What emerges is highly variable. It's clear that staircases do provide a powerful emblem for the mind to invest with meaning and some of the other talkers were intriguing (not least the slightly driven executive who habitually climbs the staircase to his penthouse office every morning). But Hillman himself sinks the thing. 'Life itself is a kind of staircase,' he began, ' . . . we meet people going above us and below us on the staircase.' Apart from its muddled syntax, this is very like the sort of thing that vicars say when they are addressing a congregation of small children, and I have to confess that it made my spirits take a couple of steps downward.
They went down another flight when he got on to the familiar movie scene of a star descending a staircase. 'It's like a mythical moment - it's the descent of Aphrodite or Venus into our world,' he said. That's unexceptionable, but only because it is a wrinkled old truism (movie goddesses, etc) tricked out in classical fancy dress. The programme offers you Hillman as a guide into the dense jungle of the unconscious and then you find yourself travelling down a four-lane motorway.
When he goes cross-country, the results aren't much better. 'We're afraid of going down stairs,' he said at one point, suggesting that our placing of heaven as upwards offers a reason for all those spooky cellars in horror films. This thesis was not illustrated by the equally numerous instances of spooky attics or by Hitchcock's famous demonstration, in Psycho, that going up stairs can be fatal. Elsewhere he's just fishing. 'It's almost as if the curved staircase up into mystery is woman herself in man's imagination,' he said further on. Very interesting that you should use the word 'almost' there, Mr Hillman. It crops up quite often in your speech ('Falling down stairs . . . it's almost symbolic of falling in life'). Could it be that you're betraying an unconscious doubt about this sort of vague Jungian blather?