Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jung and the fairy tale

A brief review of Jung and applications of his ideas

I'm a big fan of Carl Jung, twentieth century psychologist and head of a movement twinned with, and in internecine conflict with, Freud and the Freudians. The latter call themselves psychoanalysts, and the former, analytical psychologists! There are places Jung goes where I can't follow- he was a bit mystical at times, positing a new physical principle of reality (synchronicity), and maintaining a perpetual ambivalence whether religion was purely psychological, or whether his psychology touched on transcendent dimensions, indeed even put us in touch with God.

Like a true prophet, Jung's output was prodigous (22 volumes of collected works) and wildly uneven. Reading through even his best work, one is struck by a regular cycling between lucidity and obscure meandering. At his best, he is penetrating and eminently quotable. His therapeutic system offers a kind of salvation, which he termed individuation, that accomplishes the full flowering and maturation of human potential by coming to a balanced tension between the various poles of our psychic existence- conscious/unconscious, light/dark, male/female, etc. Getting there involves dredging up unconscious contents arriving through dreams and other avenues, and the involvement of the therapist in a sort of chiropractic realignment / inspired interpretation of those contents.

Noll's "The Jung cult" recounts even darker sides to Jung's life and legacy, and is on my reading list. But all that said, (and I'm no expert), I also find a great deal of good in his approach, including, in his more sane moments, a thoroughly psychological theory of religion as a sort of art form, and an appreciation of the spiritual impulses of humanity that, while irremediably supernatural in their psychological expression, have no supernatural origin. Jung was not really doing science, (at best, a sort of pre-science), but was developing a language to describe the psyche and its dynamics, drawing shamelessly on the mythologies and symbologies of countless other traditions, ancient and modern.

Along with Freud and many others, Jung thought that simply bringing unconscious contents to light is enough to set us free, like the gnostic theme of redemption by knowledge so common in mystical religion (not to mention modern science!). But what is in the unconscious was not just the nasty repressed stuff that Freud was so fixated on, but also beautiful, positive and powerful messages and themes that have healing power for a psyche out of balance. That is to say, it holds the fundaments of *meaning and of religion in all its senses, positive and negative. Jung also presented the idea that the unconscious provides a sort of counter-weight or corrective to the conscious stance, which can lead to harmony if only we listen to it. The phenomenon of PTSD might make one leary of such simplicity, but in the hands of positive cultivators and interpreters, a great deal of good can come out of such engagement with products of the imagination.

Though the psychological movements might partake in some ways of the forms of religion, their real significance is that they give us tools to understand all religion, and much else besides. Thus Jungianism might be termed a meta-religion, since, much like his student Joseph Campbell's work on myth, it works to lay bare the psychological, typically symbolic, language underlying the expression of human meaning in the arts and in the allied forms we call myth and religion. "Lay bare" might be putting it a bit too strongly. Perhaps it is better to say that Campbell and Jung used the kaleidoscopic range of its specific expressions to talk about the contents and dynamics of the unconscious (as did Campbell's student George Lucas). My view is that this work will re-emerge with time as cognitive science develops deeper understandings of mental function from a more reductionistic direction.

The foundation of Jung's system was an appreciation of the unconscious as a huge and deep edifice, with which consciousness is in constant dialog and tension. The layers range from simple cultural indoctrination to the deepest instincts like fear of snakes and other phylogenetically ancient patterns. These patterns, consituting an internal cosmos of sorts, are accessible or spontaneously expressed to different degrees, from Freudian slips to art, religion, and dreams. Whether dream content is meaningful is hugely controversial, and I don't take a firm position. But its imagery is very suggestive of messages with coded symbolic meaning, which have from ancient times been treated with high respect. Even if they lack intrinsic meaning, dreams are rich objects of interpretation, like vivid Rorschach blots that might be bent to positive or negative meaning, given one's frame of interpretation, itself the product of unconscious and social influences.

At any rate, the unconscious at its most lucid seems to speak in symbols and feelings, not in prose. Thus the arts are filled with symbolism and raw emotion, not to drive college students crazy with their layered lapidary depths, but to express the inner reaches of human nature. Included in the arts should be such pre-sciences as alchemy and astrology, with their incredibly symbol-rich, if data-poor, systems of thought. The iconoclasm of modern art has been a remarkable proof (in the breach) of this rule. We now miss the gargoyles of architecture, the warmth of representational painting, and the rhymes of lyric poetry. But we can not have them back, because they would betray too much of our humanity, which modernism has repressed after coming into such startling contact with its depths through the wars and psychological insights of the twentieth century. It would now be too naive, obvious, unironic, unrefined, and simplistic!

Religion also has felt the brunt of this modernist repression, where logic forbids giving in to superstition, however deeply felt and inescapable from a psychological perspective. So, we have to go back in time to find truly rich representations of unconscious currents- to Homer, to the romatic poets, to Raphael, to pre-modern art of all kinds.

One of the most interesting and perhaps surprising sources of unconscious contents in their most pure and concentrated form are fairy tales, such as those collected by the brothers Grim. I am working here (in extremely crude outline) from a set of podcasts by a Jungian therapist in Vancouver, John Betts. His segments on temperament/typology and individuation were relatively weak, but his segments on the interpretation of fairy tales were outstanding. He treated the tale "The Nixie of the mill-pond".

Fairy tales take place no where in particular, and no time in particular. Their characters are undeveloped and undetailed, existing only to further an archetypal story. Which is to say, a story consisting of themes and symbols all of unconscious significance. What details they do have are clearly symbolic, not realistic. Fairy tales have a superficial simplicity, yet are uncannily gripping and durable, being products of a long cultural process of pruning and selection. Their meaning is subtle and not obvious, but their lessons stay with us, because they speak to the inner self. Incidentally, they are ideally suited to the animated cartoon format, with non-realistic art matching their non-realistic content.

The drama of a fairy tale is one of individual psychological development, portrayed in an unrelenting stream of symbols- in this case, the pond, the golden comb, the moon, the old wise woman, the three heroic tasks, the magical flute, circumambulation, people turning into frogs. And on and on. The tale is told as a loosely connected set of symbols, which in this case have a strongly feminine tone (moon, flute, spinning wheel, sheep, crone, roe deer). Thus it seems that this tale, though its ostensible main characters are the miller and his son, is about their relationship to the feminine principle, embodied in the Nixi (a kind of powerful water-sprite, such as the Rhine-maidens of Wagner), and the son's wife.

The Nixie takes possession of the son in consummation of a deal the miller made with her after losing touch with his own psychological foundations (represented by a run of bad luck, a sort of midlife crisis). Enduring severe magical and heroic tests (whose solutions are communicated to her through a set of dreams), the son's wife saves him from the clutches of the Nixie by giving the Nixie a series of symbols of femininity, only to lose him again to years of amnesia. But the flute ultimately reminds each of them of their true natures (gnosis), after which they live united, happily ever after.

It may be possible to put other, more mundane interpretations on fairy tales. But to me the symbolic and psychodynamic interpretation, as a sort of waking dream with deeply psychological dilemmas and resolutions, seems far and away the best, plumbing the depths of the tale's dynamics, and explaining its power and meaning, expecially to those who are young and more psychologically open than adults. The reason why we treasure tales of psychological development and fulfillment, which are of course also the bread and butter of all kinds of narrative art- novels, sitcoms, cartoons, and films- is that this is what we seek in our own lives- not just material sustenance and success, but personal meaning found through the trials and tribulations of life.

  • Arch-Freudian Edward Glover spits invective at Jung in 1953: "What sexuality is to Freud the number four is to Jung." (Jung was into numerology along with everything else mythic).
  • Freud and religion
  • Is peak oil a mirage? That would, frankly, be a terrible situation for the climate. And I doubt the rosy scenarios depicted here. US oil production continues to decline, despite all the technological wizardry.
  • Gosh- whatever happened to IBM?
  • Whence morality?

1 comment:

  1. Well said. Always love The Hero With A Thousand Faces.....