“The illustrations are enigmatic. In fact, they were as nearly confusing to me as they may appear to others. They are… dream-images, and they “formed themselves” as I lent my pen to them, just as I later followed the promptings of the figures comprising the unconscious voice in the conversations. They emerged in an intense period of concentration at the beginning of my efforts to understand Jung’s work and are dispersed throughout the book at intervals which seemed to me to best fit the ideas associated with them. They are symbolic representations of future development, and the book is an elaboration of the ideas they contain. As dream-images, they do not lend themselves to rational explanation. They are pointers of the way which express the feelings and intuitions beyond thought and logic.” – A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious
“Though the ego is only one complex of associations in the psyche, it has evolved as a coordinator: what it is drawn to as an object of attention will be where and how its energy is applied. These motives are based on unconscious processes, and only by turning conscious attention to them can we find deeper meaning and purpose beyond the preconceptions of ego and its one-sided, paradoxical intentions.” — A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious
Continuing Erich Neumann’s discussion of ego-inflation, it’s important to note that his observations were written in 1949 as a response to WWII. That spectacle of mass psychosis seems far distant to the current generation, though many of today’s decision-makers were shaped directly by the psychic conditions which produced it. It may seem that modern consciousness is accelerating at warp-speed, but this is an illusion created by ego’s identification with intellect and has little to do with consciousness in the sense of being self-aware. The tradition of repression which characterized the old ethic Neumann described is not so easily disposed of:
“The instability of attitude which is caused by the presence of the counter-position in the unconscious is not confined to the average man, who, as a constituent member of the mass, makes up the following of all “movements”; it is also found — and this is even more dangerous — among so-called leading personalities such as educationists, teachers and politicians.”
As compelling as Neumann’s insights were in 1949, we’re in a better position to gauge their accuracy a generation later. The psychic tendencies he observed then are not only confirmed by the modern political landscape, they follow the same pattern collectively that he and Jung mapped out in individual psychology:
“The incompetence of the politicians, which has become so cruelly… obvious to modern man, is essentially due to their human inadequacy — that is, to a moral undermining of their psychic structure which culminates in their total breakdown when faced with any real decision. To future ages, the fact that the leading politicians of our period were not required to pass a test of any kind to determine their human and moral qualifications will appear… as grotesque as it would seem to us today if a diphtheria-carrier were to be placed in charge of the children’s ward in a hospital.“
Perhaps Neumann gave too much credit to the average man of his day; either way, it becomes more painfully obvious with each new change in the governing process, whether by force or election. There are important psychological reasons for this:
“From the point of view of the new ethic, the moral inadequacy of the politician does not reside in the fact that on a conscious level he is not a morally acceptable personality — though there is no guarantee that he will be that, either! It is his total unconsciousness of the shadow and the illusory orientation of consciousness that accompanies this kind of unawareness which is the decisive — and often enough, the fatally decisive — factor.“
Here, we enter the new reality show of modern American politics as foreseen by Neumann. The articulate deception which characterized the political process in the last century has devolved into the “sanctimonious hypocrisy and downright lying” mentioned in my last post. Because it’s an initial stage of ego-awareness, it’s rude, undeveloped and appears in negative form. It brings to the surface all that was hidden in the facade personality by exaggerating it to an extent that it becomes visible to all but the most uncritical.
It’s that energy of the unconscious counter-position (the shadow) which, since it exceeds conscious will, pushes the spiritual possession behind the inflated ego into awareness — but only to a reflecting mind.
“The only person who is morally acceptable in the eyes of the new ethic is the person who has accepted his shadow problem — the person… who has become conscious of his own negative side. The danger that constantly threatens the human race and which has dominated history up to the present time arises out of the “untestedness” of leaders who may actually be men of integrity as understood by the old ethic but whose unconscious and unheeded counter-reactions have generally made more “history” than their conscious attitudes.“
It’s an even more dangerous problem today in this new age of exaggeration and warp-speed intellect. What happens when the new leaders are no longer even men of integrity by the old standards, but the negative exponents of a new ego-driven reality that threatens to consume everything, including itself, for the sake its own image?
“It is precisely because we realise today that the unconscious is often, if not always, a more powerful determinant in the life of a man than his conscious attitude, his will and his intentions, that we can no longer pretend to be satisfied with a so-called “positive outlook” which is no more than a symptom of the conscious mind.“
“But, it can also appear in the opposite capacity as “spirit”, for instance when the conscious mind only recognises the material values of this life. The shadow represents the uniqueness and transitoriness of our natures… it is our own state of limitation and subjection to the conditions of time and space. At the same time, however, it forms part of the nuclear structure of our individuality.” — Erich Neumann.
My last post alluded to Neumann’s ideas of “conscience” vs. the “inner voice”; the “criminal” perception of those who conceived creative change throughout history as a rough sketch of the conflict, and also the exchange, between the individual and society and how solutions first appear via the unconscious. Here, I’ll try to clarify his insights into this process and how they relate to changes today:
“The old ethic admits two reactions to the psychic situation created by conscience. Both are perilous but… to different degrees and with different results for the individual. The situation which is more… familiar to the average man is that in which the ego identifies itself with the ethical values. This identification takes place by means of an identification of the ego with the persona. The ego confuses itself with the facade personality (which of course in reality is only that part of the personality that is tailored to fit the collective), and forgets that it possesses aspects that run counter to the persona.“
As Neumann stated in the opening quote, this shadow-side contains the core of our individuality and is repressed to the extent that we identify with collective beliefs and ideals. The inner voice concealed in it generally has a confusing and frightening quality that intrudes upon those who are predisposed to a certain openness to the unconscious beyond their will. It’s always contrary to what we’re taught. This is the means by which culture evolves and the value of the individual (despite the opposite presumption):
“Owing to its identification with collective values, the ego… has a “good conscience”. It imagines itself to be in complete harmony with those values of its culture which are accepted as positive, and feels itself to be the bearer no longer simply of the conscious light of human understanding but also of the moral light of the world of values… In this process, the ego falls a victim to a very dangerous inflation… a condition in which consciousness is “puffed up” owing to the influence of an unconscious content. The inflation of the good conscience consists in an unjustified identification of a very personal value (that is, the ego) with a transpersonal value, and this causes the individual to forget his shadow (that is, his creaturely limitation and corporeality).”
Psychologically, this describes the history of religion to a tee; yet ego-inflation continues to increase with conscious development. Even as unconscious contents change along with it, this “god-like” condition becomes ever more personalized. Despite the new science (or maybe because of it) of our ‘creaturely limitations’ — our animal heritage and the paradoxical co-existence of a sophisticated cortex that would reach to the stars and a primitive hindbrain that would plunge us into savageries undreamt in Adam’s day — it’s the spirit of Nature that now threatens a modern apocalypse.
“Repression of the shadow and identification with the positive values are two sides of the same process. It is the identification with the facade personality which makes the repression possible, and the repression in its turn is the basis of the ego’s identification with the collective values by means of the persona.“
It’s little wonder Jung referred to the individual as “the only real carrier of life”; that nature’s creative urge can be expressed through it alone. The contradictions inherent in the unconscious interaction of opposites are too complex to grasp without a subjective relation to the irrational feelings and deep personal motives which are the counter-pole to rational thought.
“The forms which may be taken by this ethical facade range from general illusion and an “as if” attitude to sanctimonious hypocrisy and downright lying. These false human responses to ethical demands are not confined to any one historical period; yet it is a fact that this pseudo-attitude has appeared with especial frequency in the history of the West in the past hundred and fifty years. Actually, Western man’s illusory self-identification with positive values, which conceals the real state of affairs, has never been more widespread than in the… epoch which is now coming to an end.“
These observations provide a glimpse into the symbolic world of psychic reality. The creative/destructive aspects of nature favor that which lives in accordance with its laws and eventually displace that which does not. These objective values don’t change — only our relation to them. Ego-fixation is both a warning and a symbol. The warning is clear, the symbol is not; both need reflection:
“Ego-inflation invariably implies a condition in which the ego is overwhelmed by a content which is greater, stronger and more highly charged with energy than consciousness, and which therefore causes a kind of state of possession in the conscious mind. What makes this state of possession so dangerous — irrespective of the nature of the content which lies behind it — is that it prevents the… conscious mind from achieving a genuine orientation to reality.“
“A large part of education will always be devoted to the formation of a persona, which will make the individual… socially presentable, and will teach him not what is, but what may be regarded as, real; all human societies are at all times far more interested in instructing their members in the techniques of not looking, of overlooking and of looking the other way than in sharpening their observation, increasing their alertness and fostering their love of truth.” — Depth Psychology and a New Ethic – Erich Neumann.
An historical view of our development will attest the fact that we’re currently entering a new stage of consciousness. A brief look at the scientific advances of the last century ought well convince the most hardened skeptic. The intellectual creativity and focus required for them are truly astounding. But, the increase in focus they represent is at the expense of another vital function of a more diffuse nature, a different kind of awareness: the religious function.
While Neumann’s quote may not apply to the relatively few specialists who’ve thrust intellectual objectivity into the collective spotlight, their love of truth is restricted mainly to the material world. Another reality lurks behind today’s fascination with objectivity. Psychic law dictates that the greater our focus on objects, the more we lose sight of the subject — ourselves: what we do with things and how we relate to life, its purposes and meaning. Human instincts are finely tuned to an irrational earthly existence, now obscured by rational truths — yet still driven by age-old spiritual fantasies. Neumann:
“Every kind of restriction may be imposed by the collective. But whether it is a case of a taboo in a primitive tribe, a social convention or a moral prohibition, whether it is a question of not mentioning certain subjects or of not admitting certain facts or of behaving as if certain non-existent entities in fact existed or of saying things which one does not mean or not saying things which one does mean — every time it makes one of these demands the collective will be guided be certain principles which are vital to… the development of consciousness. Without these values it could not exist — or such, at least, is its firm conviction.“
Neumann here puts his finger on the modern dilemma; for, these same values, without which we’re convinced humanity can’t exist, now threaten to destroy the civilized world. From constant global tensions to open hostilities to outright war; from the willful destruction of our habitat for no more than our own greed and convenience to the sheer waste of finite resources built into it (all of which would be deemed psychotic in the individual), the shadow-side of our collective natures — the regressive ideologies, stunted politics, run-away technologies, fake news, and all the rest — conspires against us.
“The ego will receive the reward of moral recognition… to the exact extent to which it succeeds in identifying with the persona, the collectivised facade personality — the… reason being that this facade personality is the visible sign of agreement with the values of the collective… From this point of view, it makes no difference whether the persona-personality by means of which ego identifies itself with the demands and values of society… belongs to a medicine man or a solicitor, a chieftain or a party functionary, a king or an artist. It is equally irrelevant whether the society which imposes this collective mask… is primitive or civilised, democratic or Fascist.”
Neumann goes on to discuss the “contrast between “conscience” and the “inner voice” as a basic conflict between the individual and society which creative design is to raise consciousness beyond the torpor of convention and adapt it to ever-changing conditions, internally as well as externally, for consciousness evolved to adapt in two directions at once. ”This contrast is most clearly exemplified in the founders of new religions and ethical movements; these were invariably “criminals”, and it was inevitable that they should be treated as such. Abraham… Jesus and Luther… all these were regarded as criminals…
“On the authority of conscience, the persona excludes a number of psychic components. In part, these are repressed into the unconscious, but in part, too, they are controlled by the ego and consciously eliminated from the life of the personality. All those qualities, capacities and tendencies which do not harmonise with the collective values — everything that shuns the light of public opinion, in fact — now come together to form the shadow, that dark region of the personality which is unknown and unrecognised by the ego.”
These psychic facts are “the expression of our own imperfection and earthliness, the negative which is incompatible with the absolute values… our inferior corporeality in contradistinction to the absoluteness and eternity of a soul which “does not belong to this world”. Such has been our general history up to the last generation…
“But, it can also appear in the opposite capacity as “spirit”, for instance when the conscious mind only recognises the material values of this life. The shadow represents the uniqueness and transitoriness of our natures… it is our own state of limitation and subjection to the conditions of time and space.“
Here we enter a modern phase of spiritual possession in which the old values and ideals begin the transition into their opposites — in full accordance with psychic law. Since the shadow contains all that’s incompatible with the collective values with which the ego-facade identifies; and since these values have unconsciously shifted from a subjective search for truth to the ‘objective’ world through a symptomatic (and symbolic) obsession with it, ego identifies not only with the forgotten gods of its projected history, but seeks to further transcend its nature by identifying with the new god of it’s own intellect.
(My next post will be a continuation of this one.)
“What we see and what we can’t see are determined by the concepts which shape our perceptions. A different conceptual view is required to grasp the effects of the psychic reality we can’t see: a symbolic one.” A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious.
This review of the development from sensual, concrete perception to abstract thought is an attempt to clarify the need for discrimination between subject and object. From Jung’s Psychological Types, the intent is to get a sense of the unconscious projections beneath today’s focus on objects and objectivity from the subjective standpoint.
Jung here discusses the opposition between the extraverted and introverted views which naturally echo through the history of philosophy up to the present. The focus on objects was described as the principle of inherence which posited only the reality of the thing in itself. Nothing could be predicated of it that wasn’t objectively valid or perceived by the senses. It stood in opposition to the ‘generic concept’, a product of the value of ideas over things, known as predication. Jung described the psychological process of moving from concrete to abstract:
“When, for instance, we speak of “warm” and “cold”, we speak of warm and cold things to which “warm” and “cold” belong as attributes, predications or assertions. The assertion refers to something perceived and actually existing, namely to a warm or cold body. From a plurality of similar cases we abstract the concepts of “warmth” and “coldness,” which again we immediately connect in our thoughts to something concrete, thing-like. Thus “warmth” and “coldness” are thing-like for us because of the reverberation of sense-perception in the abstraction. It is extremely difficult… to strip the abstraction of its “thingness,” for there naturally clings to every abstraction the thing it is abstracted from. In this sense the thingness of the predicate is actually an a priori.“
The variability of physical acuity and individual type aside, the subjective nature of perception is so relative that it’s not hard to imagine two people arguing about what is cold and what is warm according to personal experience and the degree to which each is accustomed to either.
“If we now pass to the next higher generic concept, “temperature,” we still have no difficulty in perceiving its thingness, which, though it has lost its definiteness for the senses, nevertheless retains the quality of representability that adheres to every sense-perception. At this point the conflict arises about the “nature” of energy: whether energy is purely conceptual and abstract, or whether it is something “real.” The learned nominalist of our day is quite convinced that energy is nothing but a name, a mere counter in our mental calculus; but in spite of this, in our everyday speech we treat energy as though it were thing-like, thus sowing in our heads the greatest confusion from the standpoint of the theory of knowledge.”
Though Jung’s studies lifted the subjective veil of philosophy and epistemology onto an empirical plane, it’s little noted by the sciences a century since. This can only be the result of the irrational basis of psychic processes and the rational mind’s refusal to acknowledge the concepts which would allow it to perceive its symbolic language. The denial of values underlying the commercial, ideological and political exploitation of ‘objective’ science today begs the questions of how and why we think about what we think about.
“The thing-likeness of the purely conceptual, which creeps so naturally into the process of abstraction and brings about the “reality” of the predicate or the abstract idea, is no artificial product, no arbitrary hypostatizing of a concept, but a necessity. It is not that the abstract idea is arbitrarily hypostatized and transplanted into a transcendental world of equally artificial origin; the actual historical process is quite the reverse.”
As Jung noted, this concrete quality of the senses remains an essential aspect of the unconscious psyche’s mode of perception. It was only by empirical study that he unmasked the symbolic elements beneath its primitive veneer and how they conform to the forward movement of psychic energy in the most complex ways imaginable.
“Among primitives, for instance, the imago, the psychic reverberation of the sense-perception, is so strong and so sensuously coloured that when it is reproduced as a spontaneous memory-image it sometimes even has the quality of an hallucination. Thus when the memory-image of his dead mother suddenly reappears to a primitive, it is as if it were her ghost that he sees and hears. We only “think” of the dead, but the primitive actually perceives them because of the extraordinary sensuousness of his mental images.”
Our very natures are couched in this sensuality — one of the reasons we can’t distinguish the reality of dreams from waking life when we experience them. It’s a different reality than the conscious one, and it governs all human activities just as surely as it always has. The difference now is that the most advanced object-ivity is yet under the sway of an ego that remains as primitive as the emotional reality it refuses to examine. Though it everywhere confronts us, it’s seen only in others.
Multiply those projections seven billion times, and the value of reflection (and its individual nature) increases exponentially. The conceptual direction of thought is now being urged to take another step forward to a different kind of reality; not in the world of external objects but its own subjectivity. It’s not the god of reason, religion or ideology — but the spirit of Nature and our deep-seated fear of an objective psychic reality that opposes everything we believe about ourselves that is false.
Though the older intuitive idea that the individual retraces the development of the species in condensed form (recapitulation) has been discredited by biology as a scientific concept, it’s value as an analogy should not be ignored. Jung offered a wealth of empirical evidence for it in his studies of primitive psychology: “Just as the body is a museum, so to speak, of its history, so too, is the psyche.“
Notwithstanding its rejection as a literal biological truth, as an analogy, it may aid us in understanding our natures in ways that the precision of modern science can’t. In its search for objective truth, science depends on concrete and very specialized information; though, our knowledge of objective fact has little altered our ego-image over the centuries. Such facts exist only in the intellect.
We may know, in fact, that we’re animals, yet we still react to animals and nature as if we’re the very gods we’ve projected consciousness into for millennia. The rational, scientific perspective has no empirical concepts to evaluate emotions, values, morality, or the natural limitations of our objectivity needed to express the irrational functions which form our deeper personalities.
Our views of nature and our own natural history continue to deteriorate in direct proportion to conscious development. Few accept in their hearts that, as animals no more or less important (objectively speaking) than any other species on this earth, our values reflect an unconscious disdain for nature as destructive as it is unsustainable.
In an attempt to better understand our subjective reality, I revive the old idea of recapitulation, not to argue scientific principles but analogical ones. Though the evolutionary biologist or embryologist may refute this or that literal point in the following description, it is, as Philip Wylie stated in his, Essay On Morals, a biological analogue:
“Each human being from the meeting of his paternal sperm with his maternal ovum, relives the history of his forbears. He is at his beginning awash in mucus, a dividing amoeba — next, a sea anemone with its root in the uterine wall — then a jellyfish — a gilled fish, after that afloat soon in his salty amniotic sea — reptilian then for a while — mammalian presently — and at last, when he is ready to be born, the Primate. So Nature, to create one man, repeats… the forms of his predecessors.
“But the born human being, unlike the hatched fish, is not ready to take up even on a miniature scale the ways of the adult. Now, for years instead of months, its development repeats a second pattern — one whereof the basic cast required a million years rather something more than a billion.”
Though depicted in the Old Testament as an “event” — an even older form of analogy — Wylie here links the historical process of coming to consciousness to the contemporary individual’s psychological experience of the evolution from a raw instinctual condition to an increasing self-awareness. This was a major theme of Jung’s work: the value of an historical perspective in determining who we are that we might be more conscious of our responsibility to the future: the god-like task of the Old Testament in modern empirical terms:
“The babe is the brainless, feeding beast that can but cling to its mother’s hair; the infant is the savage — unhousebroken rage and hunger — a very ape; the tot with his sticks and mud pies and witless cruelty of investigation is a Stone Age person; after him comes the school barbarian — full of ritual and superstition, hero worship and familial prides; with the first tinge of adolescence, the mysticisms of the Middle Ages appear; after that (not often, for we have been at this business but a few thousand years and only in a few categories) there occasionally emerges a rare figure, an adult — a human being whose acceptance of what has gone before and whose ever-expanding concern with the truths of what now is give him insight into what is yet to be. This is the individual Homo Sapiens, full grown, fully aware, whose choices are formed according to consciousness of the long evolution of consciousness and whose prospects extend in the same scale.
“Argument by analogy is, of course, inferior to demonstration. Yet, the fact that each one little man recapitulates the… swing of evolution in his body, and… that each one human child lives through the rising moods and upward movements of all past human society suggests, at the very least, that consciousness may be the compliment of event, or in some fashion, the mirror of it.
“Einstein… is hardly a spontaneous phenomenon: he is at once the purest detachment and the inevitable product of an almost unimaginable train of causes and effects. And, while our knowledge of biology and of anthropology and of sociology does not prove instinct shapes us, or even settle the eternal, dismal, ignorant argument concerning “free will,” it gives a most inferior countenance to all prescientific ideas of God and the human soul. Indeed, it destroys them, simply by providing a more majestic truth — or more majestic set of parallel truths.“
What does this say of the perceived majesty of consciousness and its relentlessly destructive nature? Did you read the “news” today?
“But, that for every prompting we obey, the risk of opposite result is set up, few Western men are willing to consider in relation to themselves. It shakes every pretension to our society. To a… materialistic “civilization” it proposes… that orientation toward objects has put the whole subjective nature of society in jeopardy. We may go mad — or be mad.” — Philip Wylie, 1947.
This quote was from an earlier post in which I highlighted Jung’s insights into our current cultural transition from a traditionally religious-based value-system to a rational scientific world-view. Here, I return to Wylie’s interpretations of Jung’s work to stress the historical psychic conditions which have fashioned the most catastrophic vision of nature consciousness has ever conceived: objective science.
WWII and its unprecedented technology of destruction might have suggested a new relation to the unconscious nature which produced it. Well, it did for a while — until more diverse forms gave us ever newer diversions to repress the chaos and confusion of a subjective world whose emotional uncertainty has resulted in an irrational belief that only more science can solve the problems it has itself created:
“Health authorities make maps of areas and ages to show how these people were felled by typhus, those by avitaminosis, others by syphilis, cholera, smallpox or malaria… the day is coming when maps will trace the subjective viruses and show how an overweening pride undid the Semitic conquerors… how Napoleon’s France fell to the mass identification with a single Hero archetype, and how it was an inferiority complex that gnawed away the German Reich… For diseases of the mind are greater killers of nations than things which wriggle and flagellate. And neither universal public health nor economic stability is any panacea for this other category of plague.“
Wylie’s seventy-year-old observations take on new significance as the need for an inner perspective gains momentum. How can we, as individuals, understand the collective ego-compensations that form our modern conceptions of ourselves?
“The adaptability of man is great enough so that he is able to maintain social forms and carry out national programs with a seeming of normality long after his psychological infection has spread beyond hope of recovery… for, whatever the disorientation or illusion may be, it is so widely shared that any evidence of insight is itself regarded as a perturbation of the mind.”
So, individual insight into human behavior is conceived by collective standards as subversive; liable to create dangerous effects if unchecked, though the general approach today to the inevitable consequences of our subjective natures for the purposes of increased self-awareness is to ignore and repress it.
“Mental epidemics are not like physical plagues. Symptoms there may well be, and symptoms violently alarming to the afflicted group; but, when the sickness is severe… and general enough, its universal symptom is that it’s concealed. It disguises itself as “realism” and the very proof of good mental health — and there is no way for the people to tell that they are mad.
“To the individual, the entering virus is a small thing, a conversion or an indoctrination, the re-arrangement of a few electrons in his brain; the act is customary and the reward to ego is large. Religion not only relieves him of the distressing responsibility of being an animal, but elevates him to a godship — kept conditional, that the church may hold dominion over him. Patriotism makes him that most superior… of all human beings, a Spaniard, a Dutchman, an… Englishman — or an American, the inhabitant of God’s country.”
This may sound extreme to the nationalistic ideologues who now compensate the global trend toward (at least) commercial cooperation. The latter’s aim may be a result of subverted values for material gain, but it remains one more subjective step toward the acceptance of the other in the face of historical biases:
“The common patriot, Hindu or Hoosier, and the common bigot, Brahmin or Baptist, are madder powder-makers than all the merchants of death and the military men together.
“Beneath the egotism… the instincts demand, not security; but the opportunity for satisfaction. Security — some safe and standstill status quo — is never the main business of instinct, but evolution, the increment of consciousness, which holds dear the individual or the group only so long as the greater purpose is served. The moment the rising consciousness is inhibited by men, the instincts commence to destroy those men and their works, keeping the process hid under some good name or blessed program.“
Lest we lose sight of the higher purposes beyond the partisanship of competing ideologies; or the values of democratic principles that empowered the individual with “certain inalienable rights” such as history had never known, consider the psychological aspects of our modern predicament:
“But we Americans have not much utilized the knowledge and we do not much have the machinery in our minds to find out how to begin to use it. We invest our greatest passion in the contrary attempt… Before there… was a germ theory, poxes and black death were regarded as scourges from heaven or… hell. In these days, we have exactly the same attitude toward the psychological sources. We see that we are behaving foolishly — or ridiculously, but we do not see that what we believe is foolish and vicious.“
“A struggling clergy, unable to translate the older values into contemporary terms, cannot defend its views in the face of rational argument. Literally interpreted, religious symbols not only don’t make sense to a science based on observable facts, they appear ridiculous and even silly. Worn half-truths and a declining relevance find modern mega-churches resorting to the same impersonal strategies driving business and political interests: mass commercial appeal. Science and religion have become adversaries competing for consumers; the individual, an insignificant statistic buried under the anonymity of target groups, market niches, and sales pitches.” — A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious
For Jung, death and the ‘beyond’ were symbols of unconscious perceptions far exceeding conscious reasoning. The gulf between belief and rational knowledge is filled with irrational facts that don’t make logical sense. Jung asked: why would the unconscious insist on such fantasies? Why is it important to consider things we can’t know?
The short answer is: they provide a deeper experience of life than intellect can achieve; a feeling-level which ascribes human values to the impersonal effects of rational thought. The commercially-instilled collective belief in science, because it depends on exploiting unconscious emotions by identifying them with objects, is a denial of subjective reality. We’re losing contact with our spiritual natures and fast becoming what Jung called “heads with wings”.
In an earlier post, I related an exchange between Manuel and the severed head of Misery from James Branch Cabell’s, Figures of Earth, in which ideas of the soul were discussed; of spirit and immortality, human disregard for animals and the earth, and other such ego-based projections as describe the conflicts and cross-purposes of man and nature.
In the conversation, Manuel explains that he has an immortal soul. The rational head, in its subservience to the sensual, material world, wants to see it. Manuel says it can’t get out until he’s dead. The head asks how he, who has never been dead, can “… be certain as to what happens when one is dead?“
Manuel takes up the argument: “… there is about at any rate some persons a whiff of divinity… do you not find it so?” He feels the inner weight of beliefs which give deeper meaning and purpose to his life…
“Yes, Manuel, most young people have a spark in them which is divine, but it is living which snuffs this out of all of you, by and large, without bothering Grandfather Death to unpeel spirits like bananas. No, the most of you go with very little spirit, if any, into the grave, and assuredly with not enough spirit to last you forever. No, Manuel… I never quarrel with religion, because it is almost the strongest ally I have, but these religious notions rather disgust me sometimes…
“Now you are talking nonsense, sir,” said Manuel stoutly, “and of all sorts of nonsense cynical nonsense is the worst.
“By no means,” replied the head, “since plainly, it is far worse nonsense to assert that omnipotence would insanely elect to pass eternity with you humans. No, Manuel, I am afraid that your queer theory, about being stuffed inside with permanent material and so on, does not very plausibly account for either your existence or mine, and that we both stay riddles without answers.
“Still, sir,” said Manuel, “inasmuch as there is one thing only which all death’s ravishings have never taken from life, and that thing is the Misery of earth — “ Misery allows the premise to be indisputable and asks what he makes of it.
“… I deduce, sir, that you, also, who have not ever been dead, cannot possibly be certain as to what happens when one is dead. And so I shall stick to my own opinion about the life to come.” The head replies that his “… opinion is absurd on the face of it.” Manuel:
“That may very well be, sir, but it is much more comfortable to live with than is your opinion, and living is my occupation just now. Dying, I shall attend to it in its due turn, and, of the two, my opinion is the more pleasant to die with. Thereafter, if your opinion be right, I shall never know that my opinion was wrong: so that I have everything to gain… and nothing whatever to lose…”
The disembodied head of rational thought can’t understand Manuel’s reasoning and questions him, but Manuel interrupts: “Ah, sir,” says Manuel… smiling, “in this world men are nourished by their beliefs; and it may well be that, yonder also, their sustenance is the same.
“But at this moment came Reeri (a little crimson naked man, having the head of a monkey) with his cock in one hand and his gnarled club in the other…”
Such heady ideas summon up unconscious emotional conflicts of a very primitive nature: the repressed animal-spirit that holds the creative urge in one hand also wields the threat of violence in the other. To restrict one to the purposes of ego, unconsciously brings the opposite into play.
You may not relate to such psychological antinomies, but we hear daily about this ‘little naked man with the head of a monkey’ on the news. An unconscious religion may well be the strongest ally of misery — until we interpret the symbolic reality beneath the beliefs.
“Though the ego is only one complex of associations in the psyche, it has evolved as a coordinator: what it is drawn to as an object of attention will be where and how its energy is applied. These motives are based on unconscious processes, and only by turning conscious attention to them can we find deeper meaning and purpose beyond the preconceptions of ego and its one-sided, paradoxical intentions.” – A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious
Religious images have dominated human culture since beyond recorded history. So far as we know, they evolved with consciousness: a natural balancing function designed to compensate a split psychic system. As such, they reflect changes in the way we relate to ourselves and the world as we evolve.
This implies that we not blindly or literally accept their centuries-old forms. But, it also implies that their denial means not only that the split has widened between consciousness and its foundations but is in danger of losing the thread altogether as the earlier forms change.
Jung saw spirit as life-energy, and an unconscious symbol-making function points to a diffuse reality beyond what modern ego (preacher and scientist included) intuits in the unbridled fulfillment of instinctual, material desire it calls progress.
Today it’s a matter of some importance as an analogy. Only a fluid mind can grasp an analogy, and religious beliefs and scientific assumptions alike are perhaps the greatest test of our ability to relate and discriminate between a conscious reality and an unconscious one.
Not only is this a primary aim of religion, it’s what Jung’s psychology is about: the life-urge he conceptualized as libido (psychic energy) mediates a concrete reality through images. Beneath sense perception, they express analogies of psychic processes, and the associations embedded in them describe as much how we relate to things as the things themselves.
It’s the nature of a subjective ego to see the world according to its own limited perspective, both individually and ideologically, and it’s taken many centuries to even begin to separate the ideal from the real. Conscious discrimination of want vs. need in the larger context of this double-sided prism is how we see — and don’t see — their conflicting realities.
As Jung pointed out, the religious function is as innate as sense perception. It is, in fact, the complement of it, and its denial defines belief and assumption as inadequate and often misleading substitutes for an indirect psychic reality. Reflections on emotions and their associations provide unconscious information about our relations to objects and their effects on us.
This counter-pole to sense perception is just as real as the material world; the images it produces appear the more exaggerated and fantastic (even hostile) the more we identify with the sensual world: the compensations intended to direct us toward an objective inner reality. A certain measure of opposition between the two standpoints is inherent but, when it attains a critical intensity, destructive projections are the result.
“… and God gave man dominion over the earth.” has a high-sounding ring when concieved as a heavenly directive. But, whose god can assert it without revealing a profound contradiction? Today, only a devil could make such a proclamation. Yet still, we believe in our own self-deification.
James Branch Cabell fabled in his, Figures of Earth, a confrontation between Manuel the Redeemer and the disembodied head of Misery, as the two met on Count Manuel’s doorstep in his isolated cabin in the “irrational forest”: ”… I wonder why misery should have been created to feed upon mankind.” the Count pondered.
“Probably the cows and sheep and chickens in your barnyards, and the partridges and rabbits in your snares, and even the gasping fish upon your hook, find time to wonder in the same way about you…” replied Misery.
What is this contrary nature-image that refutes our best and loftiest intentions and even turns them into their opposites? Is it the severed head of repression, our own misunderstood natures, that appeared on Count Manuel’s doorstep as he looked down below astonished and confounded? Where was it’s body, its foundation, its wholeness?
“Ah, but man is the higher form of life –” said Manuel. “Granting that remarkable assumption,” Misery countered, “and is any man above Misery? So you see it is quite logical I should feed on you.“
“Still, I believe that the Misery of earth was devised as a trial and a testing to fit us for some nobler and eternal life hereafter.” Manuel responded. “Why in the world would you think that?” the head inquired… “Because I have an immortal spirit, sir, and –“
“Dear me, but this is all very remarkable. Where is it, Manuel?” – “It is inside me somewhere, sir.“
“Come then, let us have it out, for I am curious to see it.” – “No, it cannot get out exactly, sir, until I am dead.“
“But, what use will it be to you then?” said Misery: “and how can you, who have not ever been dead, be certain as to what happens when one is dead?” – “Well, I have always heard so, sir.“
So are we taught. Depth psychology has shown that it can get out — here and now, if we would conceive it. But, only the “god-like” effort of consciousness, it’s active examination of its own nature, would reconcile us to the images which point to the veiled reality behind concrete perception.
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“… the science of psychology is still in its infancy… the empirical material, the object of scientific investigation, cannot be displayed in concrete form, as it were… The psychological investigator is… obliged to make use of an indirect method… to present the reality he has observed.” – Carl Jung, Psychological Types.
Our notions of reality have changed considerably over the last hundred years. The current fascination with the material world would seem to have created a new image of it, and few historical events so startlingly conspired to make us re-think metaphysical views than those of the last century.
WWI served as notice of an exponential trend in intellectual development: as scientific rationality gained momentum, a primitive collective nature asserted itself on a broader scale. The isolated study of matter produced unparalleled means of destruction, and it wasn’t coincidental that the increase in objective thinking accentuated instinctual tendencies.
At that time, Jung was defining an empirical psychology that could make sense of an unconscious psychic reality. But, as conventional science immersed itself in material objectivity, the split in our natures widened:
Within three decades, the primitive emotional projections of an intellect bound to the senses formed a new image: World War II and an Iron Curtain symbolized ego’s dissociation from its psychic foundations. It was no accident that these developments paralleled a decline in religious values:
“Only insofar as elementary facts are… amenable to… measurement can there be any question of a direct presentation. But how much of the actual psychology of man can be experienced and observed as quantitatively measurable facts? Such facts do exist, and I believe I have shown in my association studies that extremely complicated psychological facts are accessible to quantitative measurement. But anyone who has probed more deeply… than that it should confine itself within the narrow limits of the scientific method, will also have realized that an experimental method will never succeed in doing justice to the nature of the human psyche, nor will it ever project anything like a true picture of… complex psychic phenomena.
“But once we leave the domain of measurable facts we are dependent on concepts, which have now to take over the role of measure and number. The precision which measure and number lend to the observed facts can be replaced only by the precision of the concept… One has only to take the concept of “feeling”… to visualize… the variability and ambiguity of psychological concepts… And yet the concept of feeling does express something characteristic that, though not susceptible of quantitative measurement… palpably exists. One simply cannot resign oneself… to a mere denial of such essential and fundamental phenomena… In this way an essential part of psychology is thrown overboard.
“In order to escape the ill consequences of this overvaluation of the scientific method, one is obliged to have recourse to well-defined concepts.” For Jung, it was only through symbolic thinking based on empirically derived concepts that psychology can bridge the gap between conscious and unconscious. His definition of abstraction clarified the problem:
“Abstraction is an activity pertaining to the psychological functions… in general… Abstract thinking singles out the rational, logical qualities of a given content from its intellectually irrelevant components.” Rational science is a thinking activity and lacks basic feeling-values. A technology capable of mass destruction without the empathy that accompanies its effects is a dangerous tool in the hands of a dissociated intellect.
“… I also associate abstraction with the awareness of the… process it involves. When I take an abstract attitude to an object, I do not allow the object to affect me in its totality; I focus my attention on one part of it by excluding all the irrelevant parts… my interest does not flow into the whole, but draws back from it, pulling the abstracted part… into my my conceptual world… “Interest” I conceive as the energy… I bestow on the object as a value, or which the object draws from me, maybe even against my will or unknown to myself.”
But, when the object of study is ourselves, we need a way to conceive how and why the unconscious so consistently opposes conscious ideals. Who is it that lives in these dark shadows, the “ill consequences of this overvaluation of the scientific method“? Symbolic realities aside, there are certain quantitatively measurable facts which would suggest that our alienation from ourselves only deepens with consciousness’ perceived independence. War is many things, but it’s a business, too — and business is booming.
Psychology, also, is a booming business — like the science of weaponry, medicine, or any other abstract activity which depends on ideological caprice or commercial exploitation for advancement. The science of objective data has not only done little to improve the conditions of the soul, it’s tricked us into believing that we’ve outgrown the need for its guidance. These shadow-effects are observable only through concepts which presuppose them. Without them, they work invisibly.
Attemps to subject the mysteries of unconscious psychic reality to the ideals of a dissociated culture may be good business for a few — for now; but, like an advanced technology in the fearful hands of an alienated ego, it only increases a primitive collective nature.
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“… To think logically, intellect must repress emotion; to the degree that we identify with it, we are at odds with ourselves. The over-reliance on one function to the exclusion of others is a threat to our psychic balance. The unconscious attempts to restore equilibrium by creating circumstances through unintended and “accidental” consequences which form an inner counter-pole to conscious direction: the basis of the tension of opposites, their relativity, and the swings produced by changes from within.” – A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious.
Considered psychologically, our intellectual enlightenment is an illusion. That the mere interpretation of facts can make them relative is a great paradox for an objectively oriented culture; yet it continues to create subjective conditions which only accentuate the broader psychic conflicts we face today. Jung wrote in 1961:
“Through scientific understanding, our world has become de-humanized. Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos. He is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional participation in natural events, which hitherto had a symbolic meaning for him. Thunder is no longer the voice of a god…“
“No river contains a spirit, no tree means a man’s life, no snake is the embodiment of wisdom, and no mountain still harbours a great demon. Neither do things speak to him nor can he speak to things… His… communication with nature is gone forever, and the emotional energy it generated has sunk back into the unconscious…
“Since energy never vanishes, the emotional energy that manifests itself in all numinous phenomena does not cease to exist when it disappears from consciousness… it reappears… in symbolic happenings… At least the surface of our world seems to be purified of all… irrational admixtures. Whether, however, the real inner world of man — and not our wish-fulfilling fiction about it — is also freed from primitivity is another question.“
“Numinous” describes the pull of unconscious energy to the symbolic ideas which appeal to it: the strange attraction of a painting or the uncanny feelings excited by dreams — or our projections into objects. It has a compelling quality — a feature of instinct.
Over the centuries, the denial of instinct was based on conscious ideals which in no way matched its power of attraction. This darker side of the psyche is likewise spiritual; though in a form unacceptable to the ideal. Its deeper, symbolic aspects were the focus of Jung’s studies.
Psychologically, Jung considered instincts as functions of relationship; not just biological drives to maintain the race. Instinct isn’t blind, it’s unconscious; we can’t see it but through its effects. We may have created a separate reality for our own ego-purposes, but our instinctual natures will always serve as a counter-pole through unintended consequences: the symbolic reality we can’t see.
Psychic functions are more emotional than sensual. Religious devotion was once the medium through which an unconscious nature expressed the urge to symbolic understanding, to lift us beyond mere instinctuality. Though we have evolved in some aspects, the world we create today as much reflects the inhumanity and spiritual inferiority as the one Christ sought to inform. The natural balancing of consciousness is effected by an unconscious counter-pole: a two-sided devil we may dismiss as superstition, though we remain subject to its hidden will.
The conflicts between conscious and unconscious, spirit and nature, science and religion, reflect this dual nature. Science has proved the duality of all energic processes, yet it dismisses emotion as fantasy. Preachers can’t incorporate it but through an obsolete dogma. Psychology can’t interpret it but by rote method. Philosophy grows stale before a material truth, and culture seems more divided today than ever. Confusion increases with each partial answer.
As Jung has shown, the nature of the unconscious is fluid and ever-changing, and it relentlessly pursues its own purposes. We may want more certainty than that implies, yet it’s this tension of doubt and uncertainty which is intended to make us aware of inner changes.
The value of myth and religion is that their images express the deeper conflicts below consciousness. Its purposes are not determined by ego, but are its burden. Through this mystery, we have inborn functions which enable us to relate to it. But, only if the symbols are re-interpreted to reflect changes in consciousness will they make any sense.
Ego must attain a certain level of stability to see its inner opposite as a part of itself. This is only possible through the emotions it creates. When unconscious tension is projected and explodes into the objective world, it is fantasy become real, and the instinctual energy contained in them can be very destructive.
There’s no other way for consciousness to conceive a world beyond the senses, strive as science and psychology may to understand the psyche through fact and statistic. The denial of spirit for the material world, where subjective images become concrete, is now at the expense of the reality that sustains it.
We don’t have to perceive the wind or thunder as the voice of a god to know it’s a power we can’t see or control. We won’t ever again conceive concrete things as spirits in the literal sense. Yet the way we relate to nature today, the unconscious awe, the fear and disdain, does speak to us. But only a small whisper does it sound; easily drowned by the siren-song of technology, material progress, and all the rest of the fear of god that makes us strangers to ourselves.