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Monday, December 1, 2014

Carl Jung, The Collective Unconscious, And New Age Hocus Pocus

Carl Jung has been popping up on social media recently, and it is easy to see how his New Age philosophy appeals to those who find the world dark and perplexing.  Jung believed that not only do we all have a personal consciousness, but a collective one - the sum of all the previous experiences of our ancestors. 

Looked at through this universal and inclusive lens where behavior is determined by a mystical genetic transmission of history, individual responsibility is irrelevant.  Not only can we blame our parents, crazy Uncle Willie, and Great-grandfather Josiah who was a lout, reprobate, and carny barker, but the collective antics of the billions of people who have lived before us. For those who are not religious and cannot rely on ‘God’s will’ for explaining catastrophes, wars, genocide, and thievery, the Collective Unconscious is a very good secular alternative. 

Jung of course was serious and considered a pioneer in psychiatry, offering a less harsh and Biblical interpretation of the human psyche than his predecessor Freud.  Jung, who combined Freudian theory, mysticism, and mythology offered mentally disturbed patients a more giving and accommodating therapy.  “Getting in touch with your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of others”, he once said, expanding his view of archetypes from the mental ward to the world.

“My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.”

Jung’s principal archetypes were the Self, or what Freud called the ego; the Shadow, similar to Freud’s id or the dark and powerful sexual forces within us, the Animus which corresponds to male-female polarities; and the Persona, the image we present to the world. 

Jung, while appealing to New Age sentiments because of his all-encompassing view of humanity, is not without his critics and has come under fire from Progressives and Feminists who feel that his lesser archetypes - mother, father, child, maiden, wise old man, and trickster – are nothing more than male-centric inventions of an outdated patriarch, and that reviving them is tantamount to reversing the decades of social progress which has broken down confining stereotypes of sexuality, personhood, and society. 

There is no such thing, Feminists say, as an ur-Mother, determined by millennia to bear and care for children.  Maidens only exist in romantic Petrarchian dreams, have no usefulness either as a classification or a signifier.  Wise old men are nothing more than white, privileged, and stupid young men who have simply gotten old and even more irrelevant.  While these neo-revolutionaries admit that fathers haven’t changed much over the years, and are still obtuse jailers of women; and that trickery is indeed part of the American iconography, the rest of Jung belongs in the trash heap of history.

For the rest of us, however, the idea of a collective consciousness is exactly the anodyne we need in troubled times.  Why be concerned about capitalist cabals, religious zealots, or invasive governments when it all was preordained?

Jung’s ideas of course have been around for a long time, but devoid of his peculiar mysticism.  Tolstoy’s War and Peace is an epic tale of nihilism and determinism.  Napoleon had nothing whatsoever to do with the French loss at Borodino.  His decisions were instead influenced by the thousands of random events which preceded his orders to move the left flank forward, the artillery back, or the forward positions to the rear.  The fact that Napoleon suffered from a cold on the day of the battle had more to do with his foggy military decisions than any failing strategic ability.  He had a cold because his valet forgot to bring waterproof boots for the Emperor whose feet got wet, who took a chill, and was so stopped up the next morning he couldn’t think straight.  The valet was unusually forgetful because he was preoccupied with his wayward wife who had gone off the cook.

Calvinists were no different than Tolstoy. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, God "freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass.” Calvinists have had their own doctrinal disputes because both Old Testament and New define free will as the most human of values.  God gave Man the ability to choose between right and wrong so that He could fulfill his promise of eternal salvation to those who merited it.  If God really pushes all the levers of human activity, then free will does not exist.

In Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor, Ivan Karamazov challenges the returned Christ for selling Man a bill of goods.  He offered them free will as a means to attaining the Kingdom of Heaven; but denied them sustenance.  What people really want is freedom from hunger, says Ivan, not some future possibility. 

Milton’s Paradise Lost is all about free will and its exercise.  God’s contradictory arbitrariness is no more evident than in the story of Adam and Eve.  Eve exercised her God-given free will and then was punished for it.  Not only was she punished, but the entire race of humanity ad infinitum.

So why is Jung now more popular than Dostoevsky, Milton, Calvin, or Tolstoy? Because he is easier to swallow.  Most thinkers make sorting out free will and determinism a difficult enterprise indeed; but Jung says ‘Don’t worry, be happy’.  Even more important for his new popularity is his mysticism.  It is not just New Agers who believe in the Gaia Hypothesis but Environmentalists as well. The world is one interconnected organism.  Disturb an insect in Sumatra and the repercussions will be felt in Nome.  Pollution of the air, water, and land is nothing less than rape – a vicious, insensate assault on Mother Earth.

The idea that each of us has within us all of humanity – all the souls that have ever existed – is truly mystical and goes even beyond Gaia. Souls are indefinite but real.  They are the essential part of all who lived, and yet given their ineffability, there is room for all of them within each and every one of us.

The combination of determinism and romantic idealism are a jackpot of good feeling. Freed from both both Biblical injunction and Free Will and joined in a mystical union of all souls past and present, we can indeed be happy. One can be excused for feeling giddy at the thought of each person being a tabernacle of souls and one with Mother Earth

The euphoria, however, never lasts. The rough-hewn and definitely un-philosophical side of life which Jung never really addresses is our self-interested, aggressive, territorial, and survivalist human nature.  It is one thing to believe in a universal collectivity of souls, or at least their genetic legacy; but another thing altogether to feel the ineluctable compulsion to dominate others.  Calvinists, Nihilists, Environmentalists, Climate Change Deniers, and New Agers all duke it out for primacy and the extension of their ideas. Jung, Freud, and Dostoevsky are relevant up to a point, then it is no holds barred.

Deep down all of us know that the visions of Jung, Calvin, Tolstoy, Milton, and the Old and New Testament prophets are no more than intellectual artifacts.  They provide the context for our behavior and for the human events to which we contribute.  Shakespeare understood that history never changed and never would.  It is always predictable.  Human nature is the engine of history; and because aggressive self-interest has never evolved to a more compassionate and considerate state, we will go on killing, expanding territory and beliefs, amassing wealth and resources, and fighting for supremacy forever.

Jung and the New Age feel good.  We would all like to live on Pandora, James Cameron’s version of the Garden of Eden (Avatar).  Before the arrival of the predatory and destructive aliens from Earth, Pandorans lived in a Gaia-esque world of interconnected consciousness.  The ‘Tree of Voices’ was a mystical place where all the souls of the departed still lived.  The dead simply passed on to another plane of being and were with their descendants as though they were alive.

There is room for both Romantics and Realists in the big tent.  It doesn’t really matter whether we believe we are living on Gaia, have the souls of our ancestors within us, or are simply accidental products of an impersonally random universe.  We all get up, go to work, cook dinner, watch TV, and go to sleep; or as the French say, ‘Metro, boulot, dodo’’. It is by no means a vanity to invent constructs of belief  that help us get through the day. It is what makes us human.

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