The Heroic Consciousness, Part I Context and Overview of Archetypes and Jungian Thought
A few months back I read Erich Neumann's The Origins and History of Consciousness. It is an incredible book, and in my mind fundamental to understanding the psycho-social and emergent nature of human consciousness and hence, human experience. To that end I will be writing a series of articles exploring my understanding of his ideas, my thoughts on them, and how they inter-relate to other relevant streams of thought. Particular works that come to mind are Peterson's Maps of Meaning, Ong's Fighting for Life, Booker's Seven Basic Plots, and Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces. I also wonder how much of a parallel can be drawn to theories of generational archetypes (see The Fourth Turning), as societies do seem to oscillate between polarities of archetypes (I use the word here more generally, not specifically referring to Jungian archetypes, though my suspicion is that they are in some way related) and gradually move towards a resolution of those polarities with an expansion of consciousness. That's the plan, at least, to go through all that. We will see how much I accomplish at the end.
For today, I will content myself with setting the stage for the Neumann's book with a general orientation and framework for navigating the world of archetypes, images, mythopoetic substructures, and depth psychology. Neumann was a Jungian depth psychologist who, in his body of work, systematized and expounded upon the often fragmentary and unorganized ideas of Jung. As brilliant as Jung was, if he was hacking a path through the forest, it was up to his students to actually make a real road out of his rough path through the brush.
"Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward path had been lost."
So starts Dante's Divine Comedy, and over the course of 100 cantos the narrator takes a most decidedly un-straightforward path to get to his goal, Paradise, where waits Beatrice. Through all the levels of Hell he must travel, from the outermost to the deepest and most terrible. Only then can he traverse all the levels of purgatory before he can make his entrance to heaven.
It seems to me that this is precisely the journey of consciousness. Awakening suddenly, already descending into Hell - else we would not want nor could be conscious in the first place. How lovely it would be to come back the way we came, straight back to the Garden of Paradise! But innocence lost cannot be regained. The way is shut, we have fallen and continue to fall. Dante, lucky soul, is fairly limited in his exposure to that of a mere witness to the horrors of Hell.
The only way out is forward, deeper into hell, whereupon knowing its depths can we then circle back around to Paradise - only from the back door, as it were, the long way around. The deeper into hell one goes, the stronger the consciousness must have been to make it through intact. Only then does one have the character and the constitution to return home, to Paradise, to Union with the good, resonant with deep harmonies and where every action is laden and ripe. Only with the full consciousness and experience of one who has made the travels and survived the dangers. We come back to where we started, or something close to it, but changed by the experience. To paraphrase Jung, for a tree's branches to reach to heaven, its roots must extend to Hell.
The long way is often the shortest way, in the end, because it affords the transformative experiences that shape us into the people capable of getting to our destination in the first place. What looks like a short-cut or the most direct way is also where resistance stiffens. The harder you push, the more what you push on, pushes back. Richmond, 70 odd miles from Washington in the Civil War, fell only after four years, a million casualties, the loss of the trans-Mississippi, Kentucky, Tenessee, all their ports and railhubs. The two most influential Union generals cut their teeth in the West - the long way around.
Of course this presupposes that consciousness is the a-priori good. In a paradoxical and tautological knot, the lack of this awareness means we are still in Hell somewhere. But we emerge from the Round, the Void, and return to it with a Self. I suppose that counts for something. Until, of course, we have to do it all over again. We perfect the process, and the process never ends, moving towards God-knows-what. We have inklings, and we have guides, but the experience must still be lived with the faith that what emerges on the other side will somehow be more complete, that there is an image unfolding through this process. And perhaps the movement towards is enough anyway. It stands to reason that it is better than the alternative.
If we can't move forward, we rot in our own personal Hell. What could have been a comedy dies a tragedy.
We always must have ends and we are always in movement towards those ends. Tension gives rise to an impulsion to act, raw living energy that we harness, shape, and express to the world and to others. That impulsion implies a movement of some kind, either away from what we value as bad or towards what we value as good. We can never stand still, because each tension that is resolved is but covering another one, each successive layer leading right into the heart of the labyrinth. We see these new tensions because in resolving the previous ones, we are different ourselves, looking at the world with new eyes. Tension only disappears with death, the perfect tensionless state. Each end achieved is immediately transcended, for a new tension emerges bidding us towards a new psychic equilibrium point. Yet while the ends give us a direction, they do not guarantee a transformation into a new equilibrium. It is the experience itself of moving towards that end, the process, that results in transformation. A linear path often merely stiffens the resistance, like yanking on a Chinese finger trap. For example, we cannot force ourselves to relax. Instead, we can only create the circumstances where we can relax and achieve our desired end, such as falling asleep. This is the circular path leading to effective change, that spirals us to where we want to go, whether that be a temporary state change as in the case of sleep or fundamental transformation of being.
An emergent system that has found an equilibrium between two polarities or opposing tensions naturally operates cyclically. Action and reflection. Day and night. Summer and winter. Youth and old age. Work and rest. Creation and consumption. The ebb and flow of an ecosystem. We only see these cycles interrupted in systems that have lost their equilibrium. Ruined or disrupted by an excess of either concentration or dispersion, they must undergo a period of sterility or chaos, respectively, to find a new equilibrium, oftentimes less complex and less rich than the one before. New levels of complexity emerge from that sterility, of course, but slowly. The extinction of the dinosaurs allowed mammal life to predominate. The collapse of the Roman Empire laid the seeds for modern western civilization. Yet it is not entirely accurate to say that an equilibrium, even as it oscillates, is oscillating about a fixed point.
It’s important to note that in the context of an emergent system, selfishness and selflessness is a false dichotomy. Indeed, to think in terms of selfishness and selflessness is to be trapped in dualistic, centralized, either/or thinking. We are all various degrees of selfish and selfless at various times or in various contexts. There is also such a thing as selfish selflessness and selfless selfishness. It all depends on the observer, the relationship, and the context. What we should universally abhor, instead of some arbitrary idea of selfishness, is manipulation and coercion. When we lie, mislead, manipulate, and coerce, we deny the other the opportunity to make a free choice about whether to move towards us or move away from us. True community based on free associations can only be built on honesty. Even a selfishly made invitation, as opposed to a manipulation, is a noble thing, for it speaks to the other person as a Man or a Woman rather than as a thing to be manipulated. To invite is to exercise our freedom to move towards, and to invite the invitee to exercise their freedom as well. Invitations are humanizing, whereas coercion is dehumanizing, even if we flee from it, for in doing so we must move away from relationships and into a state of exile. To invite freedom and connection with self and with others in our communities is to create points of departure, it is to invite others to explore their own roles and selves.
Human consciousness is essentially a feedback loop, in a two-way relationship with its immediate environment. Any living organism is at its core a feedback loop attempting to avoid danger and move towards goodness. Our feedback loop became so complex, it is capable of looking back in upon itself and seeing its separateness. This act of witnessing is perhaps the key to all human experience, for the act of witnessing something creates our relationship to it, which in turn creates us.
Simplistically but accurately, all we are, and indeed all any living thing is, is a complex feedback loop driven by contextually-applied instinct. Our loop may be more complex than that of other organisms we know of, certainly complex enough to have gained a degree of self-consciousness, but it is a simple system at its core. Our sensory functions, both external and internal, create feedback that our organism uses to course-correct as it seeks to pursue its goals. These goals can be broadly divided in two, corresponding to the two types of instincts we have: the instinct to move away from things valued as bad, and to move towards things valued as good.
We can say that our conscious awareness is best directed towards understanding and controlling our own state, which is analogous to the automatic routine our other-than-conscious (embodied) self runs. We can say this because our conscious awareness is a finite resource whose utility is limited as we begin to apply it to ever finer phenomenon. Combined with an understanding of systems as bottom-up phenomenon, we can also understand why managing our state is so effective. We are tending to the relationship we have to ourselves and to the world.