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.
First of all, for all this to make sense, we need a theory of the unconscious. We take this theory for granted, but it really was only relatively recently, with thinkers like Freud, that we developed a theory of the unconscious. Of course people through the ages knew that there was something else out there. But in early societies it was externalized as animism, as spirit deities, as possessions by spirits, etc. There was a non-verbal understanding of the unconscious, as it were, embodied knowledge that was acted out. But it was not something articulate, in the same way that you might feel something is off about a situation without being able to explain why that is. And certainly post-enlightenment Western civilization had, in its pursuit of rationality, moved very far away from the idea that there was something deeper to the human experience than pure reason and consciousness. Yet it is clear now that there is something more to man than consciousness. We cannot control what interests us, for example. What then is controlling our interest and our attention? And we can look to children, where consciousness is clearly struggling to develop and establish a foothold. Primitive tribes still surviving also seem to have a very different type of consciousness, as well. So there is something going on behind the scenes that is beyond consciousness, that is to say, not conscious - hence, unconscious.
From a strictly biological point of view, the unconscious as I understand it can be characterized by a series of biological drives and instincts that often times act fairly autonomously. If you go hungry, then your hunger drive begins to take over and define your personality. It's hard to recognize in the moment because so much of it is unconscious, but reflection will bear out that when you're hungry you're a very different person. You externalize your hunger onto the world (think how angry you get at others when you're hungry). Because we so rarely deal with true hunger nowadays, we take for granted a much more stable personality. But food and food preparation is one of the most ancient mysteries, considered to be a transformative substance mythologically, because of the nature of the rapid transformation that overtakes someone who is hungry that finally is able to eat. The basic tendency is towards homeostasis and equilibrium: sated, safe, and warm.
But thinkers like Jung and Neumann have posited that there is a drive, a force, an instinct behind all these many drives that gives them a directional, transformational thrust. In the same way that there is some kind of pattern embedded in our genes, a generative process that allows us biologically to unfold from single cells, and then regenerate and renew that pattern over the course of our lives, there is a force that guides a generative process psychically through the generation, development, and transformation of consciousness towards greater wholeness. Jung called this deeper pattern the Self (as opposed to the conscious Ego), and Neumann called the process itself of moving towards greater wholeness centroversion. Understanding this process, where it comes from, and why it is so critical will be the subject of a later article in this series. But what is clear is that the unconscious is the foundation, and consciousness can only emerge from the unconscious. This is clearly seen in the growth and development of children, which mirrors the development of consciousness throughout history, as is born out by anthropological and historical study.
As content at the edge of consciousness is overwhelming, it cannot be adequately captured in words. In fact, it transcends them, in a way that a photograph transcends any linguistic description of the contents of that photograph. Hence, ritual allows consciousness to grapple with those unconscious contents so as to use them for conscious purposes. The proper function of ritual is to strengthen consciousness - or at least, it was, when consciousness was weak and threatened to be constantly swamped by subconscious forces - think about a time when you were "possessed" by a strong emotion like anger, grief, elation. That is the natural state of children and primitive peoples. Now, of course, we generally have the opposite problem, where consciousness is too strong. But more on that later.
So we have an unconscious from which consciousness emerges and is strengthened by encounters with gradually more powerful, libido-charged unconscious contents (libido being what Jung called our psychic, life-force energy). The more unconscious contents the conscious mind is able to take in, digest, resolve, and incorporate into consciousness, the more psychic energy (libido) is freed up for conscious pursuits. Hence we don't have to pray or have a ritual every time we cook, fish, hunt, make decisions, farm, or work, as primitive societies had or have to. Those unconscious contents have already been firmly incorporated into consciousness. Of course, the story is not as simple as that, but as a basic idea it will do. But we see how professionals, artists, athletes etc. still have "rituals" designed to get them into the optimum state of mind for peak performance or creativity. The idea is the same: they are opening themselves up to the unconscious contents that will enable a desired, conscious outcome.
Contents range on the spectrum from idiosyncratic, that is, highly personal and unique to you, to archetypal, which touches on that which is universal across people, cultures, and time. A camera following someone around all day long is highly idiosyncratic and hence not very interesting to most people. A camera and storyteller able to weave that into a narrative of someone struggling against adversity and tragedy to live nobly in their day to day life is much more compelling archetypically because we all struggle with that. It is universal. All works stand somewhere on this spectrum. Too archetypal or too idiosyncratic and no one can relate to it. But the great works, the classics that stand the test of time, are more archetypical in nature. Writers such as Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces or Booker in The Seven Basic Plots have attempted to reduce stories down to their most fundamental, archetypal ingredients born of the fundamental patterns and experiences of human nature.
So, some of the content emerging from the unconscious is archetypical in nature as well (or else these classic stories would not grip us as they do!). Archetypes are central to the idea of Jungian thought. Archetypes as such are unconscious and inexhaustible (hence why we can watch or read or hear variations of the same plots in stories over and over again), and hence are never completely knowable. They must be, as they are what carry libido charges that enable us to live and grow. They emerge from the very physiological instincts that shape and ground human life. E.g., e all have the experience of being born, gradually emerging into consciousness, dealing with growing adversity and suffering, needing to leave the safety of the family and strike out into the comparatively dangerous outside world, etc. So an archetype is essentially a font of psychic energy emerging from universal human experience that points us and orients us towards something - this is the Self that Jung referred to, and the process of centroversion that Neumann describes. These archetypes are typified in the myths, religions, fairy tales, and stories that have stood the test of time. But as the archetype is itself unknowable (because it is inexhaustible), it then must manifest itself to us in a way that allows us grapple with it consciously and introject it productively.
Archetypes are known through images, and in fact it is far easier to talk about the images rather than the archetypes themselves, for obvious reasons.In his book The Great Mother (which I since read after finishing Origins) Neumann notes that Jung at one point explained that an archetypal image is essentially a self portrait of an instinct, an instinct's perception of itself. Note the title of that book, The Great Mother. That is one of the most foundational archetypes there is. Yet even that archetypal image is so paradoxical, so powerfully charged, the conscious mind must begin to break it down further to be able to grapple with it effectively. The Great Mother is fractured into the Good Mother, the Terrible or Devouring Mother, the Virgin, the Anima, the temptress, etc. All foundational archetypes include both good and bad, and fracturing them allows us to grapple with specific qualities individually. In bringing these specific qualities into consciousness, where they can be incorporated, we can engage more productively with the world. So for example, if a man relates to all women as The Great Mother then he cannot relate individually to them as women. He will only seek to be "devoured" and return to the womb. When he can fragment the archetype and divorce the Good Mother/Terrible Mother (the nurturing function of the Great Mother archetype) from the Anima (the transformative function of the Great Mother archetype) he can then project that anima figure upon the women he meets to find the ideal mate who, in her transformative role, will inspire him to grow up and take his proper role in society. But even then, he is relating to this women as an image, not as a person. The archetype is "introjected" (to use Neumann's word) into consciousness when the man realizes that the psychic content of the Anima is actually within him, and he is projecting it onto the world. When this happens, he is able to also establish a relationship to his feminine unconscious, which is the root of all creativity, wisdom, and transformative capacity within himself. He is then able to productively relate to both the Anima figure within his own psyche, as well as the woman in his life as an individual, and not just as an idealized Anima figure.
This is reflected in our stories. The monster to be overcome in any story is the monster within ourselves. And as stories have grown more complex, this has been reflected in that in the modern comedy/tragedy (starting particularly around the time of Shakespeare). The "monster" is no longer fully externalized as another character or, even more basically, as a beast, but is instead actively part of the protagonist's personality. Only when he overcomes the inner monster can he then overcome the villain, if there even is one in the story at that point. Stories at their most fundamental level are "Maps of Meaning," to use the title of Peterson's work, by which we "cut up" the world, assign value, and then act in the world. Preconscious minds cannot cut up the world into categories and hence cannot assign value. If there's no value, there's no action. Even the act of eating implies the category of Food, and the valuation of Food as Good, before action can occur. As archetypes are successively fractured, they drive the creation and renewal of culture, which can only emerge alongside language and consciousness.
The stronger the consciousness, the more the archetypal images can be cut up and the overwhelming psychic contents made digestible. The more cut up they are into subcomponent archetypes, the more complex social behavior they can drive, which then stabilizes the level of consciousness and permits even more unconscious contents into consciousness. You can see how once consciousness emerges it creates a feedback loop whereby it continues to grow stronger - unless it is swamped by too much unconscious contents. Much of what we would call mental illness today seems to have its roots in an overpowering of the conscious mind by the subconscious. The conscious mind, in cutting up the world, simplifies it in order to be able to interact with it. It creates order out of chaos. It thrives and grows in a certain amount of chaos, else boredom, ennui, and existential crises set it, but too much chaos and it collapses. But the stronger consciousness becomes, the more chaos - complexity and ambiguity - it can support in its simplified mental model of the world. But as Nietzsche said, human beings can only take so much reality.
This abstraction of the world to permit more consciousness and hence more complex and nuanced behavior and valuation, and also deeper and more productive forms of relating, is perhaps the primary function of consciousness itself. We cut up the world into ever finer detail to be able to interact with it. As Neumann points out, we take it for granted that when we look at the sky at night we see stars; primitive consciousness undoubtedly only saw a twinkling totality. (On a side note, as the ancients cut up the night sky with astrological signs, they projected their own psychic contents onto the night sky. In Jungian thought, this is a critical glimpse into the archetypal unconscious.) But, we may be victims of our own success. One thing all thinkers in this realm seem to agree on is that consciousness has become dangerously unbalanced, leading to a crisis of values. Remember, consciousness relies on the psychic contents of the unconscious for valuation. Consciousness itself only cuts the world up into categories and abstractions, to be filled with the value-charged contents of the unconscious. But consciousness now is actively destroying its own mythopoetic substructure, our foundational myth and story system. And the story is the value system. This is undoubtedly a topic I will discuss at length in a dedicated article.
For now, however, I will wrap up by noting that one of Neumann's chief contributions was to note that this process, that of fractionalization of unity into externalized archetypal images that are then "introjected" or digested by consciousness to strengthen it and enable more productive relating to the world, happens in a predictable sequence of unfolding, complexifying myths and images that culminate in the archetype of the Hero who, through sacrificing himself, is born anew. Exploring this sequence is the topic of the next article.