"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, January 26, 2015

Afraid Of Our Shadows–Jung’s Crazy Collective Unconscious And The Wisdom Of Alfred E. Newman

Freddy Bolton was afraid of his own shadow, his father said, and no matter how many times he repeated FDR’s stirring message, Freddy continued to be afraid of the basement stairs, the black mark on the back fence, and the crows perched on the telephone line.

“He’ll grow out of it”, said his mother. “Give the boy a little wiggle room”.

Freddy not only did not grow out of it, and his fears multiplied and became more nightmarish.  There were demons now lurking on the basement stairs, their lair the coal cellar behind the furnace.  Every time the ignition switch clicked and the oil burner rumbled, thumped, and throbbed to life, Freddy ran to his room and hid under his bed.  When he went out to play in the back yard, he was sure he saw the demons peering out the basement windows, all ghoulish and evil.

“It’s only the curtains”, explained his mother when Freddy told her of the demon with long hair and jagged fangs that looked at him on the swings.  “You’ll see”, she said. “I’ll take them down and the demon will disappear.”

His mother’s explanation only made matters worse because it meant that she knew that there actually was a demon in the basement.  Taking the curtains down would only drive him back behind the oil burner with his other fiendish friends; and in no time they would be back in another form.

Unreasonable fear like Freddy’s is very different from worry.  Freddy never worried that the sky would fall or that earthquakes would split his house in two, or even that he would get polio and die. His friend Herbie Fannon – a congenital worrier - was so worried that he would get polio that he wore gloves and a mask to school.  “Polio”, he explained to the teacher. “I don’t want to catch it.” The teacher explained that polio was a waterborne disease, and that in the nice, clean, and dry classroom there was no danger of catching it at all.

To a born worrier like Herbie Fannon this explanation was no good at all.  He knew, for example, that Mr. Woodson the janitor swabbed the floors every night after school was out, and God knows where his mop had been or where the water had come from. The drinking fountains were always clogged and gummy, so how could the teacher so quickly dismiss his concerns and claim that the school was ‘dry’?

In any case, Freddy Bolton was not a worrier; and in fact he was very rational about the insidious supernatural forces that frightened him to death. He was absolutely, positively convinced that evil spirits lived in his basement, convened behind the furnace, and watched his every move.

He was deathly afraid of thunder and lightning and like the ancient Zapotecs felt that they were emanations of a universal, powerful, and threatening spiritual force. He of course did not express his fear this way, but that was what it amounted to. He conflated the wrath of the Old Testament God with the demons in the basement and the heaven-splitting sturm und drang of summer nights and knew that demonic forces were all around him.

Since these irrational fears had not abated by the time he was ten, his parents decided to send him to a psychiatrist who was impressed that such a young boy could have created a mythological world so complex and logical.  His fears were irrational, but his cosmology was perfect. Without any knowledge of prehistory, myth, and primitive terror, he had devised his own world which mirrored that of Mesoamerica.

Freddy was no case for a classically-trained Freudian; so the psychiatrist referred him to Dr. Rubenstein, a Jungian.  Although the doctor had little use for Jung and his theories of a collective unconscious, ethically he was required to send this troubled boy for additional professional help.

Before making the referral, the psychiatrist exhumed an old medical school text book and read Jung’s words: “My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature 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.”

Yes, he thought, Jung was a nutcase; but then again maybe Rubenstein might be able to make something of Freddy’s disturbances.  He had written a monograph entitled Carl Jung and the Zapotec Myth of Being and was a recognized expert in the cultural dimensions of mania.

“So Freddy”, Dr. Rubenstein began, “Why don’t you tell me what you are afraid of.”

Freddy, fearful but never shy, welcomed the opportunity to tell someone other than his skeptical parents about the devils and demons in the basement, how they were connected to thunder and lightening, and how they ruled the world. 

Rubenstein was fascinated and filled two notebooks over the course of the next month. Freddy was intelligent and eloquent about his world of fearful spirits, and he had so well-constructed it within a tight logical framework, that the doctor was unable to find any chinks in his psychological wall.  “Why doesn’t your mother see any demons when she goes down to the basement”, Rubenstein had begun, assuming that with this one bit of reality, Freddy’s fears would be shown to be groundless.  But no, Freddy wove an intricate mythology of multi-dimensional, multivariate beings who were tapped in to his conscious and unconscious beings. Not everyone saw them, he said, because they had closed themselves off to their world.

“Ah-hah!”, said the doctor out loud.  The collective unconscious after all.  The primal collective soul of the Zapotecs somehow had found a resonance with that of Freddy Bolton. Here was living proof of Jung’s genius and remarkable insight.  A boy of ten, barely scraping by in 5th Grade and without any knowledge of Mesoamerica, Greek mythology, and the peculiar cultural expressions of ancient Americans,could not have been quoting chapter and verse.  He must have emerged from the penumbra of limited middle-class life and into the collective unconscious.

The problem was that although Jung and Rubenstein were good on theory, they were woeful in curing the mentally ill.  Now that he knew that Freddy Bolton was living an alternative ‘archetypal’ reality, how could the psychiatrist cure him of his fears?  Moreover, should he? Would he not be tampering with one of the few clairvoyants of the age? Someone preternaturally in touch with his ancient soul?

Rubenstein consulted his Jungian colleagues, but they were of divided opinion.  Some said that the Hippocratic oath bound them as well as surgeons, and Rubenstein must try to cure poor Freddy.  Others suggested that the boy was not ill at all, but simply rationalizing his multivariate world.  His demons did in fact exist, but so did the basement and his mother and father.  Don’t disabuse him of his spiritual notions, these colleagues said.  Just let him come to grips with his particularly expanded world.

Any reasonable psychiatrist would have immediately seen the onset of schizophrenia and treated it as such. Freddy was not actually seeing these demons so much as imagining them, and therein was the critical difference between multivariate Jungian theory and true mental derangement. Sooner or later he would incorporate his spiritual imagery into his reality ‘construct’ and be done with them.  Once integration had been completed, his fears would disappear.

For whatever reason, Freddy’s demons disappeared, but not his fears.  He carried with him into adulthood some rather frightening ideas. He was morbidly afraid of cats and felt that they were incarnations of the devil.  Had Dr. Rubenstein been practicing when this morbid fear surfaced, he would have been overjoyed.  Once again Freddy was confirming Jung.  Cats were associated with witches, and were killed en masse in the middle of the 14th century during the time of the Black Death. In the Renaissance, cats were often thought to be witches’ familiars (for example, Greymalkin, the first witch's familiar in Macbeth's famous opening scene), and during festivities were sometimes burnt alive or thrown off tall buildings.

Freudians would have parsed the fear differently.  Freud in his The Interpretation of Dreams suggested that the ‘evil’ cats so often experienced in dreams were actually vixens, women wanted to claw men’s genitals and castrate them. Rubenstein knew better. The fear of cats was related to ancient beliefs in the nature of primal evil and its incarnation in animals.

He was also deathly afraid of snakes; but once again, had Freddy been able to consult with Dr. Rubenstein, he would have been reassured and told to read Genesis and Paradise Lost.  Of course he was afraid of snakes. Who wouldn’t be?  The Bible, consider many, is God’s word, and He meant us to be afraid of the Devil and snakes.

According to Isaac Rubenstein who, thanks to Freddy Bolton, wrote another monograph entitled The Way of the Primitive: Primal Fear and its Place in Modern Life. According to Rubenstein, other than the ‘fight-or-flight’ reflex – i.e. a rational reaction to imminent danger – most fears are not irrational at all; and if Jung is right may connect us to a primal world of emotional reactions unmediated by our complex modern world. 

This, of course, is all nonsense. Freddy Bolton was indeed cracked ever since he was a child. He was a hypersensitive child just like his Aunt Mabel had been, imagining ghosts in the closet and seeing sylphs in the forest and unable to separate the natural from the unnatural.  Most children have imaginary friends and some persist in living in demi-fantasy worlds despite the intrusion of logic; but those who don’t – like Freddy – have a few screws loose. In his case, all that was required was some occasional tightening – reality checks – but Aunt Mabel had gone so far around the bend that there was no coming back.

What about ‘rational’ fears then? Nuclear Armageddon or a fiery holocaust of global warming? Food grains forever corrupted by GMO tampering? Invasive diseases loosed into the human population which will kill millions? Anyone who subscribes to these doomsday fears is as loco as Freddy Bolton.

Which is where we came in. As FDR so presciently said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”.  In other words, we will all die of something, so no one should care if death comes in the form of an extinction-level cosmic event, a decimating African virus, or horribly deformed Frankenfoods? What, me worry?

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