A short course in their (misunderstood) meaning
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of
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
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
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
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,
Archetypal Advice |