Some Notes on Jungian Archetypes: Symbolism and the Politics of History

Why has Jung’s theory of archetypes become popular with young, male right-wing conservatives and why now? Those who seek to dismiss Jung’s depth psychology tend to claim it has already been thoroughly debunked as a pseudo-science, overlooking the longer history of – often largely liberal – Jungian and post-Jungian thought and therapeutic practice prior to its most recent notoriety. Others, on both the right and left, engage in ad hominem attacks on Jung which, while sometimes relevant and important, fail to provide much illumination on the theory or why it might appear attractive for certain groups today. A renewed interest in Jung’s depth psychology demands a more critical consideration of Jung’s ideas.

goethe27s_faust Parts of the following notes, which are intended to contribute to such a critical discussion but only focus on some aspects of his concept of the symbol, are revised excerpts from my articles ‘On the Conservatism of post-Jungian criticism: competing concepts of the symbol in Freud, Jung and Walter Benjamin‘ and ‘Faust on Film: Walter Benjamin and the Cinematic Ontology of Goethe’s Faust 2,’ both originally published in 2012.

Jung contended that psychoanalysis had problematically modelled the functioning of the unconscious in dream symbolism almost exclusively upon the cases of neurotic hysteria that Freud was more familiar with. The key according to which Freud interprets dreams and pathological symptoms – repression – is a ruse typical of the neurotic, Jung argues, whereby ‘one makes oneself and others believe that the problem is purely sexual, that the trouble started long ago and that its causes lies in the remote past’, in order to shift the ‘whole question on to another and less dangerous plan’ and so provide a ‘heaven-sent way out of the problem of the present’ (Jung, ‘Symbols of transformation’ (1912) in The collected works of C. G. Jung, Volume 5, p. 329). Jung’s critique of Freud’s concept of the symbol demanded a shift in interpretative perspective, from an empiricism that ‘equates the dream images with real-objects’ to a theory of unconscious expression, which ‘refers every part of the dream and all the actors in it back to the dreamer’ (Jung, ‘On the psychology of the unconscious’ (1917), CW, Volume 7, p. 84).

Jung’s version of depth psychology therefore plays the historical role of ‘underdog’ or ‘loser’ to the dominance of psychoanalysis within modern bourgeois societies, a role that implies it may contain some deliberately repressed truth (although it is important to contextualize this in relation to Jung’s later rise to power and the banning of Freud under National Socialism in the 1930s). Given Jung’s own anti-Semitic and misogynistic remarks, concerning for example the ‘Jewish psychology’ and the ‘peculiarity’ it shares ‘with women’ (Jung, ‘Rejoinder to Dr. Bally’s article’ (1934) and ‘The State of Psychotherapy Today’ (1934), CW, Volume 10), this idea of a  censored truth may resonate specifically with anti-Semitic and anti-feminist conspiracy theories but also reactionary responses to modern bourgeois society more generally. Jung also suggests that the success of psychoanalysis is a ruse perpetuated by an overly neurotic society that seeks to avoid heroically confronting present psychosocial tensions by shifting attention to the experience of repression in the past. This would be attractive for those that seek to characterize a concern with the legacies of past social injustice as a hysterical obsession that weakens contemporary society. (equally, one could read Jung’s criticism of Freud more sympathetically if one thought it implied that psychoanalysis tended to overlook the current material conditions of mental health problems).

Beginning with his Transformation and Symbols of the Libido, first published in 1912, Jung sought to develop an alternative methodological approach to the interpretation of symbols beyond cases of neurotic hysteria, one that would be adequate to interpret examples of symbolism within psychotic dreams and pathological fantasies, which the psychoanalytical account had largely condemned as meaningless fantasising. Jung suggests that there are a number of reasons to take Freud’s own neglected alternative – that, ‘what we call libidinal cathexis (that is, interest emanating from erotic sources) coincides with interest in general’ (Sigmund Freud, ‘Psycho-Analytical Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementira Paranoides)’, SE12 p.74) – seriously: the productive role of the unconscious in psychic automatism, the problem of explaining the schizophrenic withdrawal of the reality principle, the difficulties of interpreting psychotic dreams symbolism and the destructive compulsion to repeat exhibited by victims of trauma would all suggest to Jung that Freud’s ‘exclusively sexual definition of libido’ was an ‘untenable prejudice’ which had been ‘historically conditioned’ by the ‘scientific materialism of the nineteenth Century’ (C. G. Jung, ‘Transformations and Symbols of the Libido’ (1912), CW, Volume 5, pp.129-130; C. G. Jung, ‘Depth Psychology’ (1948)’, CW, Volume 18, p.479).

Emphasising how the pathological subject retains a contradictory consciousness of the signifying activity of the unconscious, and so of the conflicting nature of his situation, Jung argues that his transformation of libido into projected religious symbols cannot be exclusively explained according to the mechanism of repression. Jung seeks to rescue the possibility of meaning for such symptoms by assuming the reality of a non-personal and therefore necessary relationship between the symbol and its meaning, concluding that here ‘we are confronted with an entirely natural and automatic process of transformation’ (Jung, ‘Symbols of transformation’ (1912), CW, Volume 5, pp. 129-130). These acquire their resonance, Jung supposes, because they are products of a natural and therefore essential relationship between the signifying phenomenon and the signified meaning. This meaning no longer relates to a repressed wish in the patient’s past but an unconscious – but felt – expression of the need for transformation to overcoming the conflict experienced.

What Freud denigrates as mere ‘symptoms’ – meaningless psychotic signs – are elevated to the status of genuine ‘symbols’ by Jung: ‘Symbols are not allegories and not signs’, Jung argues, they are ‘an expression of an intuitive idea that cannot yet be formulated in any other or better way’ (Jung, ‘Symbols of transformation’ (1912), CW, Volume 5, p.77; Jung, ‘On the relation of analytical psychology to poetry’ (1931), CW, Volume 15, p. 77). Given Jung’s intellectual indebtedness to an aesthetic tradition that included Goethe, Schopenhauer, Creuzer, Yeats and Romanticism, it is unsurprising that his concept of the symbol shares the occult tropes of ‘manifestation’ and ‘incarnation’ that Creuzer compared with the sudden appearance of a ghost. The automatic production of such symbols, for Jung, means they acquire the occult characteristic of a ‘possession’: of something conjured into the living present of the patient’s consciousness from another place or time (cf. Stephenson, ‘How Myrtle Gordon addresses her suffering: Jung’s concept of possession and John Cassavetes’s Opening Night’). Jung even articulates the development of his distinctly non-Freudian theory of the unconscious as an encounter with the spirit-world: ‘I once asked myself, “What am I really doing?” …Whereupon a voice within me said, “It is art” …I was like a patient in analysis with a ghost and a woman!’ (Jung, Memories, dreams, reflections, p. 210). Jung argues that Freud’s reaction to these dissociated functions of the psyche as somehow daemonic or magical stems from his own fantastical denial of the existence of fragmentary autonomous psychic systems, and specifically from a denial that these systems are experienceable (Jung, ‘A psychological view of conscience’ (1958), CW, Volume 10, p. 446; cf. Jung, ‘Commentary on ‘The Secret of the Golden Flower’ (1968), CW, Volume 13, p. 36).

When Jung comes to apply his metaphorical concept of the symbol to art in his 1922 lecture ‘On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry’, a similar mediumistic automatism can be detected in his account of the reception of great works of art. Addressing the question of how ‘a poet who has gone out of fashion is suddenly rediscovered’, he concludes that, in such instances, ‘something new’ is discovered in the poetic work, which was ‘always present … but was hidden in a symbol’ and is rediscovered with ‘a renewal of the Zeitgeist’, which ‘permits us to read its meaning’ afresh (Jung, ‘On the relation of analytical psychology to poetry’ (1931), CW, Volume 15, p.77). This symbolic effect is originally achieved through the poet’s ‘unconscious activation of an archetypal image and in elaborating and shaping [Entwicklung und Ausgestaltung] this image into the finished work’. Redeploying these automatist tropes, Jung describes how the artist ‘translates it into the language of the present [eine Übersetzung in die Sprache der Gegenwart] and so makes it possible for us to find out way back to the deepest springs of life’. This is even more apparent in his discussion of ‘visionary’ art, where works ‘positively force themselves upon the author; his hand is seized, his pen writes things that his mind contemplates with amazement’ (ibid., p. 73). In such instances, ‘One might almost describe it as a living being that uses man only as a nutrient medium, employing his capacities according to its own laws and shaping itself to the fulfilment of its own creative purpose’ (ibid., p. 72).

Importantly, Jung invests this conjured artistic symbol with an existential and compensatory function derived from the productive unconscious. Because the symbol is an image from the unconscious past that expresses that which is consciously missing from the present, the historical present itself is formulated as something partial or incomplete. The ‘social significance of art’ is defined as one of ‘conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking’ in order to ‘compensate the inadequacy and one-sidedness of the present’ (Jung, ‘On the relation of analytical psychology to poetry’ (1966), CW, Volume 15, p. 82). For Jung, symbolic ‘conjuration’ involves a transference of that which – in quasi-biological terms – is accumulated through past, collective habits into the living, historical present. Since what is manifested in the realm of appearances must by definition be ontologically absent, this symbolic conjuration is assumed to serve as a compensation, producing a conservative conception of the present as merely one-sided and incomplete in relation to the fullness of the past.

The archetypal scene of this conjuration is to be found, for Jung, in Faust’s heroic conjuration of the shades of Helen and Paris in the second part of Goethe’s drama. Jung believes that Faust’s vital pursuit of the feminine ideal of Helen, the classical symbol of beauty, must be properly situated within the context of his descent to the chaotic and deadly realm of the Mothers (‘Formation, transformation,/ Eternal Mind’s eternal recreation./ Thronged round with images of things to be,/ They see you not, shadows are all they see’ (J. W. von Goethe, ‘Faust II’, CW2 lines 6287-6290, trans. altered). Whilst the ‘primordial image of the setting sun’ represents a ‘deadly longing for the abyss, a longing to drown in his own source, to be sucked down into the realm of the [Faustian] Mothers’, this destructive descent also holds out the potential for ascent, psychic rebirth and the subsequent after-life of the transformed subject (Jung, ‘Symbols of transformation’ (1921), CW, Volume 5, pp.355 & 357) Grasping the dual aspect of this descent as a confirmation of his own account of the schizophrenic breakdown of the reality principle as both destructively catastrophic and erotically life-enhancing, he associates the conjured Helen with ‘the living symbol’ and the rejuvenated pair as ‘the symbol of a process of inner union, which is precisely what Faust passionately craves for himself as the supreme inner atonement’ (Jung, ‘Symbols of transformation’ (1921), CW, Volume 5, p. 125).

Faust, let us not forget, is a suicidal old man who makes a death-pact with the devil to experience unlimited pleasures that leave him unsatisfied and disgusted with the world. Magically transformed into a young man, Faust can only seduce Gretchen with the devil’s aid, leading to the murder of her mother (poisoned by Faust’s sleeping potion), brother (in a duel with Faust), and newborn child (who Gretchen drowns in despair), and to Gretchen being condemned to execution. There is – perhaps unsurprisingly, given Goethe is the poet of renunciation – an entire mythology of frustrated male desire under capitalism encapsulated in Goethe’s Faust and the expression of its violent and self-annihilatory tendencies. Faust’s mistaken enthusiasm for the noise of his own gravediggers, at the end of the second part of Faust, appears as an ironic wish fulfilment of his own frustrated desire for death: the ‘actual realization of the great Faustian dream’ (István Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation, p. 298; Faust’s original death-pact with Mephistopheles – ‘If I should ever say to any moment [Augenblicke]: / But stay! – you are so beautiful [Verweile doch! Du bist so schön]’ / then you may lay your fetters on me, / then I will gladly die!’ – is premised on the possibility of a moment blissful enough to satiate worldly striving).

The Marxist critic Walter Benjamin noted in 1937 how Jung had ‘recently leaped to the rescue of the Ayran soul with a therapy reserved for it alone’, and that ‘these auxiliary services to National Socialism have been in the works for some time’ (Walter Benjamin, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, p.540). It is striking that when he came to criticizes Jung’s archetypes as ‘archaic images,’ in contrast to his own ‘dialectical images’ (the ‘disenchantment of the dialectical image’ in the concept of the dream, Adorno argues, leads ‘straight to unrefracted mythical thinking’) it was not the esoteric evocation of ‘primal images’ that he objected to but Jung’s reduction of the ‘esoteric theory of art’ to the banal function of ‘conjuration’ and ‘compensation’ in ‘making archetypes ‘accessible’ to the ‘Zeitgeist’’ (Benjamin, The Arcades Project). Benjamin focuses on how this understanding of the symbolic conjuration of the historical serves reactionary political interests, explained in a different context as the aestheticisation of politics under capitalism that produces the conditions for fascism. This phenomena is tied both to the emergence of the charismatic figure of the heroic ‘leader’ (the individual who gives voice to the masses, using the technological means of the spectacle, and according to nostalgic notions of a lost cultural, linguistic, or racial singularity) and to the technological possibilities of mass reproducibility (the audio and visual reproducibility inherent to photography and film, that capture everyday life as a spectacle and brings the spectacle into everyday life). In both instances, Benjamin’s interest lies in how the possibilities of technological reproducibility and the collectivization of the masses becomes fettered by existing property relations under capitalism, and how the tension caused by this deliberate inhibition deflects those energies back onto a destructive recuperation of the past (cf. Benjamin, ‘Paris, Capital of the nineteenth century’ in Selected Writings, volume 3 , pp. 324-9).

Writing of the philosopher Henri Bergson, Benjamin’s colleague Max Horkheimer comments that the ‘same historical dynamic which constrained the originally progressive parts of the bourgeoisie before and during the [first world] war to following the economically authoritative groups also changed the meaning of the activist Lebensphilosophie [philosophy of life] and transformed it, often against the intentions of its initiator, from a progressive power of social critique into an element of contemporary
nationalist ideology’. Consequently, ‘Like the situation in contemporary history, where the fascist opponents of liberalism took advantage of the fact that liberalism overlooked the estrangement between the uninhibited development of the capitalist economy and the real needs of humans, contemporary metaphysics grew stronger in the face of the failings of positivistic science and philosophy; it is their true heir, just as fascism is the legitimate heir of liberalism’.

In this context, the role of Jung’s theory might be understood as “compensatory” in the sense of “resonating” with the frustrations (of white men), which are deflected onto the past (where they are perceived to have been hitherto satisfied), and so naturalized as eternal. It is because the metaphysical dimensions of the esoteric are so uncomfortably yoked to the temporal horizon of the present, that Jung’s account can appear as an apologia for fascism in advance, understood here as a specific political configuration of the masses in relation to an individual spokesperson (i.e. a relationship between the collective and the privileged leader or poet who channels and expresses their energies). The importance and value of attending to the collective symbolism of cultural and political productions is thus evacuated of any critical purchase. It could be even be said, in contrast to Horkheimer, that one problem with Jung’s esoteric metaphysics is that it isn’t esoteric or metaphysical enough when it accords the past such a weight, on the basis of reductive biological claims, in the theory of supposedly eternal archetypes over and against the considerable weight of the future.

Benjamin’s intervention in order to liberate such energies necessitates what he calls a converse politicization of aesthetics. This can be traced back to a criticism, in his early writings, to an aestheticizing of the symbol, that has a much longer history but is popularized by both Goethe’s classicism and aspects of Romanticism, that obliterated its roots in a theological concept of history that involved the collective redemption not of an individual, nor of the present moment, but of all people and all time (and hence those excluded from historical representation and so from the symbolism of the archetypes). Benjamin’s reading of the relationship between the symbolic and allegorical in his early writings is important in providing one way of thinking about how that which is typically dismissed as mere artifice, convention or illustration – the interchangeable and meaningless substitutions of signs – can be revealed as itself meaningful and significant.

Benjamin’s dialectical image incorporates this reference to temporal (rather than ‘eternal’) experience; its so-called ‘essence’ is distinguished from anything innate or timeless by being identified with what Benjamin calls the ‘historical index’ of the image. This index registers the intrinsic relation between the ‘what-has-been’ and the ‘now of a particular recognizability’, dictating that the dialectical image ‘attain[s] to legibility only at a particular time’ and ‘bears to the highest degree the imprint of the perilous critical moment on which all reading is founded’ (Benjamin, The Arcades Project). In an earlier discussion of the ‘now of recognizability’, Benjamin describes this index as a ‘medium’ or a ‘nexus between existing things and also with the perfected state of the world’ to which truth belongs. It is not the absence of something that conjures the past into the present, but the ontological continuity of past and present, within a medium whose standpoint of redemption provides the pragmatic focus for that which lies on the verge of oblivion or extinction. Archetypal images that are reduced to explanations for our affective responses to what is common and timeless (but what is missing and yearned for) pass over what is ephemeral, contingent or untimely (that is, what is present, past or future and to be lost) within a particular historical conjuncture. If each moment is found to bear the imprint of this incompleteness, each might therefore hold this redemptive hope: ‘To grasp the eternity of historical events is really to appreciate the eternity of their transience.’

For Benjamin, the ‘archetypal’ is to be liberated from its archaic association with the primitive, the original and the historically prior. A new vocabulary might therefore be opened up in this encounter between the individual and the collective and also a new metaphysical dimension of the future. The dialectical, rather than archaic image, therefore inherits Jung’s concern with affectivity and collective meaning but theologically expands its historical focus beyond a biological experience of bodily affectivity tied to the here and now.

Benjamin’s philosophy also draws attention to the way in which archetypes are technologically embedded (that is, how symbols from mythology, art and culture become transmissible by way of technological reproduction: in spoken stories, carvings, paintings, books, and films) and to the way in which technology as a ‘second nature’ mediates between the opposed terms of nature and history (technological artefacts possess their own history of reception and reproduction and therefore have a ‘life’ and ‘death’ identical to natural objects).

The problem that Jung overlooks in his appropriation of Faust’s descent to the Mothers and the creative act of conjuration that follows is how the image of Helen is not produced directly and magically through the profundity of psychological symbolization, but is mediated via the technological reproduction and projection of the magic lantern and the other technical apparatus of the phantasmagoria show. Although the magic produced by a mysterious tripod Faust retrieves from the Mothers has been variously associated with necromantic ritual, artistic genius and female procreation, its theatrical necessity should be related instead to the need for the literal technological projection of the phantasmagorical performance that follows. Goethe’s drawings suggest that the ‘vision of Helen of Troy should also be patterned on optical illusions, with two-way mirrors and changing lighting bringing her image suddenly into focus in the glass’ and, according to Albrecht Schöne, the whole ‘dumb-show of Paris and Helen’ represents ‘an illusionist spectacle devised by Mephistopheles with the help of a magic lantern that projects images onto a screen or smoke (or incense)’. Mephistopheles directs this performance from the prompter’s box, with the phantoms projected onto the ‘smoke-like haze’ which engulfs the stage within the stage. Jung thus repeats Faust’s own misrecognition, for whereas as the spectators of the court express an ironic disappointment with these conjured phantoms (‘He might be a bit less stiff’, ‘Although I see her clearly, I’ll point out that there may be some doubt if she’s authentic’), Mephistopheles is continually forced to interject when Faust takes them for something real (‘Control yourself, and don’t forget your part’, ‘Don’t interfere in what the phantom’s doing’).

Jung’s archetypes occlude this technological aspect, yet it remains significant in accounting for the psychosocial structure in which Jung’s ideas might resonate for certain groups today: for those who appear to regard their own desires and striving frustrated by the ‘weakness’ of present conditions, in contrast to their satisfaction in past conditions, but who nonetheless are able to find expression and confirmation for their own and society’s ‘weakness’ in an online community of the supposedly ‘disenfranchised’. It is technology that plays the compensatory, expressive and magical function of a productive/destructive relationship to the perceived social tensions here (for a discussion of the link between technology and occultism, see Liberalism – which gives expression to the disenfranchised without overcoming the relations and conditions of disenfranchisement – finds its parodic inversion as fascism.

Faust’s pact with the devil was that if Mephistopheles showed him a moment so beautiful his striving would cease and he would choose to stay, then he would perish: ‘the clock may stop, its hands fall still, / And time for me is finished!’ For Benjamin, in contrast, history has always been so catastrophic for so many that the angel would willingly stay and perish, but they are being driven ever onwards by what we regard as progress. In what has been described as a melancholy inversion of the Faustian ‘But Stay!’ in Benjamin’s On the Concept of History, it is the Angel of History who ‘would like to stay [verweilen]’, but not because the moment is so beautiful but because they are transfixed by the unfolding catastrophe. What prevents the Angel from lingering before the catastrophe is not an inner striving but an external force, one that drives (treibt) them away. This force is what we mistakenly call ‘progress’, but what is really a storm that is blowing from Paradise. One way to read this paradisiacal storm is as an allegory of the messianically destructive potential of Benjamin’s concept of ‘Now-Time’ (Jetztzeit): the snapshot or freeze-frame of an ephemeral moment, in which history is being blown apart. It is only the angel’s momentary struggle that reveals the force of now-time to us, who are caught in the process of destruction, but because of this recognition a new conception of history opens to us.

The  historian must turn away from the politics of the present and make a leap into the past similar to that of the revolutionary, in order to liberate the forces unleashed by the suffering and oppression of previous generations. This leap should take place not in the current political arena where the ruling class gives the commands, but in the ‘open sky’ (freien Himmel) of history’, in which ‘what has been’, by dint of a ‘secret index’ (heimlichen Index) that refers to redemption, ‘strives [strebt] to turn … towards that sun which is rising’. Our pact with the Angel, then, would be to save history itself, by stopping the clocks and bringing time to a standstill. The theses go on to present themselves as meditations designed to strengthen our resolve to turn away from the strivings of the world (der Welt und ihrem Treiben): to liberate the ‘political Worldling/Worldchild [Weltkind]’ from our spurious faith in progress (the Weltkind appears in Faust to denounce those pious hypocrites who consort with the devil at the witch’s altar). For ‘every epoch has a side turned towards dreams, the child’s side’, Benjamin insists, and here the economic conditions of life find collective expression. If it falls to the child to ‘recognize the new’ and to assimilate these images for humanity by bringing them into symbolic space, then this collective, revolutionary task falls to the historical Worldchild.

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