Arising from recent dialogue with a friend, I’m posting this one-off to try to clarify my thinking about Carl Jung, archetypes, the arts and religion. In Jung’s view, the human psyche has three different but interacting ‘levels’, which should not be thought of as separate ‘compartments’. There is consciousness, which enables us to perceive, and function in, the day-to-day world. There is the personal unconscious, which stores forgotten memories, repressed ‘unwelcome’ memories, marginal sense perceptions which didn’t make it into consciousness, and mental contents slowly forming but not ready to emerge into the light of day.
Then there is the collective unconscious, which we ‘inherit’ as a reservoir of ‘primordial images’ common to all humanity, which are impersonal and transpersonal. These ‘images’ Jung calls ‘archetypes”, and they owe their origin to what have been the most constant experiences in the lives of human beings since earliest times. The word ‘image’, however, is potentially misleading. Jung isn’t talking about pictures hard-wired into the brain, but about basic ‘frameworks’ out of which images can emerge. What is inherited is ‘form’, but not ‘content’. The latter is supplied by individuals, using the resources they possess in their conscious minds.
An obvious analogy is that of ‘instincts’ which can undoubtedly be hard-wired into brains. Who teaches a chick when and how to crack its egg shell? Who teaches a bird the complex task of building a nest? No one ‘teaches’ them. They already ‘know’ in principle, what they have to achieve in practice. We’re talking, then, in human terms, about shared, inbuilt ‘patterns’ which trigger and guide outward action, but don’t determine its precise nature. That will depend on the resources, both material and personal, accumulated by, and available to, each individual. There are, after all, innumerable shapes, ingredients, sizes and locations of birds’ nests.
What is ‘inherited’ is not precisely formulated images, but ’dispositions of the mind’ towards similar but distinctive patterns of perception, thought and action. The mythographer Joseph Campbell wrote a book about the archetype of ‘the hero’. He outlined a succession of features including the call to adventure ; the crossing of the threshold ; the encounter with trials and tribulations ; assistance from unexpected sources ; the achievement of goals ; the return with lessons learned ; the sharing of these with others. All hero stories will include some, if not all, of these features, though not necessarily in that order, and so there will be innumerable hero stories, some quite different though, at root, the same.
These archetypes are fundamental to our predispositions and potentialities for experiencing and responding to our world. They are basic to our centuries’ old human experience, and have the power to captivate our minds, engage our hearts and energise our actions. They have the potential to create an intellectual, emotional and spiritual impact on us, particularly when filled with content from sensitive, imaginative, cultured and creative minds.
Jung has demonstrated how the same basic archetypes, however varied the dress in which they appear, can be found throughout all the myths, religions, poetry, literature, dramas, paintings, music and dance of humanity, down through the centuries and across the globe. As I noted in a previous post, our myths and religions give us, over and again, their ageless stories of creation from chaos, devastating floods, gods who cherish and punish, miraculous births, madonnas with child, venturing heroes, dying and rising gods, angels and devils, heaven and hell and so on.
These archetypes are here to stay but, although the form and framework stay the same, the content and clothing need to constantly change if they are to have a continued impact on, and meet the needs of, succeeding generations of men and women. Just as language and literature, poetry and drama, music and dance, continually change and develop, so must religion if it is to continue to capture minds and hearts. The age old forms will be retained, as in the various arts, but must be refreshed with new content, however challenging for some, that may well be.
The question I asked previously, remains. Are these ‘archetypes’, like the God archetype, simply “poetic inventions, the products of human consciousness”, or are they “intuitions, however imperfect, of an unseen reality which preceded and transcended humanity”? For a scientific and philosophical analogy, did we ‘invent’ or ‘discover’ mathematics? This can’t be about ‘knowledge’, but must be about ‘faith’. Mine is in the transcendental Ground of All Being, whatever that might be, but you can call it God if you so choose.
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