James Branch Cabell’s, Jurgen and Figures of Earth, continue to occupy me. Because they derived from medieval folk tales and were worked by anonymous authors over centuries, the ideas in them contain symbols and analogies which have long been left behind in the modern search for objective truth.
Like alchemical philosophy, they revolved around natural processes outside conventional belief: aspects of inner life which dwell in “the land of two truths” beyond the dual thinking of traditional religion. Studies of symbols suggest that we’re entering a new phase of consciousness in which the repression of the unconscious that characterized centuries of Christian philosophy is slowly altering old ideals as its shadow begins to surface.
This process is revealed in shifting religious devotions, exaggerated dependence on science, technology and consciousness, the breakdown of traditional notions of marriage and family, obsessions with sex and violence and the more animal aspects of nature: signals of unconscious values in need of development.
Their tensions find us grasping at the certainties of fact and knowledge, along with more modern fantasies of technological diversion — not to understand the nature within but to further control it and repress it…
“Well, sir,” says Manuel, as he is entangled in the unconscious, “you may be right in a world wherein nothing is certain.” This reflective attitude is echoed by Jurgen: “You may be right; and certainly I cannot go so far as to say you are wrong: but still, at the same time — !”
The core of this unconscious creative realm was described by Jung as the symbol-making function. Goethe’s Faust descended into this void where, “There are no locks; no bars are to be riven;” Where, “Through solitudes you will be whirled and driven.” Manuel saw it, too, courtesy of Queen Freydis — down where the image-makers toil:
The magicians chanted strange, unintelligible verses in the dim obscurity of fire-light as they fashioned clay images. “What is the meaning of all this?” Manuel asked Freydis.
“It is an experimental incantation… in that it is a bit of unfinished magic for which the proper words have not yet been found: but between now and a while they will be stumbled on, and… will live perpetually, surviving all those rhymes that are infected with thought and intelligent meanings such as are repugnant to human nature.”
Manuel: “Are words, then, so important and enduring?” Freydis answers: “Why, Manuel… In what else, pray, does man differ from the other animals except in that he is used by words?” Like Alice in Wonderland, this world is reflected in opposite form and is upside down or backward from the conscious view because it compensates it. Manuel “… would have said that words are used by men.
“There is give and take, of course, but in the main man is more subservient to words than they are to him… think of such terrible words as religion and duty and love, and patriotism and art, and honor and common-sense, and of what these tyrannizing words do to and make of people!
“No, that is chop-logic: for words are only transitory noises, whereas man is the child of God, and has an immortal spirit.
“Yes, yes, my dearest, I know you believe that, and I think it is delightfully quaint… But, as I was saying, a man has only the body of an animal to get experiences in, and the brain of an animal to think them over with, so that the thoughts and opinions of the poor dear must remain always those of a more or less intelligent animal. But, his words are very often magic, as you will comprehend by and by when I have made you the greatest of image-makers.
“… Manuel talked with Freydis, confessing that the appearance of these magic-workers troubled Manuel. He had thought it, he said, an admirable thing to make images that lived, until he saw and considered the appearance of these habitual makers of images. They were an ugly… short-tempered tribe, said Manuel: they were shiftless, spiteful, untruthful and in everyday affairs not far from imbecile: they plainly despised all persons who could not make images, and they apparently detested all those who could… What sort of models… were these insane, mud-moulding solitary wasps for a tall lad to follow after? And if Manuel acquired their arts (he asked in conclusion), would he acquire their traits?
“The answer is perhaps no, and not impossibly yes.” replied Freydis. “For… they extract that which is best in them to inform their images, and this is apt to leave them empty of virtue. But, I would have you consider that their best endures, whereas that which is best in other persons is obliterated on some battle-field or mattress or gallows…”
The strange personifications in this creative realm of unconscious activity are the conflicts of opposing tendencies inherent in our natures. What we perceive as deceptive, hostile, and even imbecile (especially in everyday life!), are the raw undeveloped material, the clay, by which human animals are fashioned. We may perceive only that which is best in them to inform our images of ourselves and take the virtues for our own, yet only nature dictates the mud of human predicament.