A short course in their (misunderstood) meaning

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Jan. 31, 1998)

My column last week provoked several e-mails from people curious about my "read" on Carl Jung's theory of archetypes. Since it is so central to his psychology -- and so central to much of what has been appropriated from it by the New Age -- I thought it might be worthwhile to outline some of Jung's concepts here.

In last week's column, writing about David Tacey's book "Remaking Men," I noted his criticism of the way archetypes in contemporary understanding have become literalized and fixed. In the men's movement, for example, the "archetype of the warrior," the man from Mars, has become fixed as a masculine ideal.

Far from representing a true archetype, such characterization is a gender stereotype that isn't so much "recovered" as re-imposed to perpetuate patriarchal values.

What did Jung actually mean by the "archetype"? It is true that part of the confusion arises in his own writing. He developed the idea over time, at first calling the archetype a "primordial image," which seemed to imply a particular content. As he elaborated the idea, though, he made it clear that he did not mean a particular fixed content but a potential pattern of behavior that arises in the "collective unconscious."

Jung posited the existence of this collective unconscious after his break from his mentor, Freud. Freud's notion of the unconscious was limited to repressed memories and forgotten experiences. In other words, in his view, the conscious precedes the unconscious. What occupies the unconscious is only material repressed from the personal conscious.

In Jung's view, though, the unconscious precedes the conscious because, he argues, beneath the personal unconscious is the larger layer of shared human patterns, the archetypes, contained in the collective unconscious. He developed this theory, contrary to the usual criticism, on the basis of empirical evidence. Studying the dreams of individuals and the art and mythology of numerous societies, he found the repetition of themes and, yes, images over thousands of years across cultures.

Because his theories have become so literalized in their New Age understanding, Jung has been attacked as unscientific. In fact, there is nothing at all unscientific about his theory. It is completely compatible with biological science, which observes that most organisms are born with a predisposition to respond to the environment in a certain way. A bird builds its nest instinctively. A mother, gazing upon her infant the first time, is flooded with love. These are archetypal patterns. Where we locate the "psyche" -- as a biological or metaphysical structure -- is irrelevant in this particular consideration.

The archetypes, in Jung's view, are autonomous. Thus they tend to personify themselves, through the cooperation of the active imagination, in order to penetrate personal consciousness. Then they can be instructive for personal growth. This process of personification -- as the "Great Mother," the "Wise Old Man," the "Divine Child" -- is how the archetypes get confused as actual images instead of patterns of behavior. The particular way these patterns personify and their specific meanings have different inflections, according to the individual and the culture within which they arise. A wise old man in our culture is different from one in Rwanda. It is the structure -- old age -- that is archetypal, not the particular contents.

The archetypes are important because they form the "nucleus" of what Jung called the complexes. A complex in the Jungian sense does not necessarily imply pathology, as it does in the Freudian sense (such as the Oedipal Complex). A complex is an aggregate of feelings and thoughts that center around an archetype. Thus, everyone has a mother complex. The experience of "mother" is universal, archetypal. One is born with a need to be mothered. The particular tone of your own mother complex depends on your experience with your primary mother figure (usually the biological mother).

If the experience is unpleasant, the complex will have a negative character and may be repressed, made unconscious. In that case, the negative experience will often be projected on people (or even institutions) that recall the original mother.

The value of the archetype is that by exploring a negative complex, making it conscious, one can liberate the archetype from its pathological accretions. For example, a woman suffering a negative father complex may become repeatedly involved with abusive men. Such a relationship is the result of projecting the repressed father complex on men around her. If she finds the courage -- and it does take great courage -- to confront her complex, she may penetrate it to the father archetype, liberating the archetype, which is never negative, from the personality of the sadistic father of personal biography. By so doing, the personal struggle actually becomes transpersonal and, ideally, the woman gains personal autonomy. She is no longer ruled by her complex.

Thus the archetypes stand as human potentialities outside time. They may be frozen in the pathology of personal biography but the very symptoms their freezing produces also points the way toward their elimination.

I hope it is clear from this that the invocation of the stereotyped image of an archetype does not invoke it as a living presence. Men who run into the woods to beat drums and call themselves warriors, despite all their very real pain, may instead need to examine very different complexes. In running off to play "wildman," they may actually be more deeply repressing their mother complexes. Likewise, dressing up like a "Jaguar woman" and playing shaman may be just another way of avoiding a negative father complex.

Copyright 1998 by Creative Loafing | Published Jan 31, 1998

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