By Abdullah Kazmi
“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.” ― Carl Gustav Jung
Carl Gustav Jung is widely regarded as one of the greatest thinkers and writers, to have emerged in 20th century Europe. A practising psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Jung’s intellectual depth and vast domain of knowledge stand testament to the fact of how much his works have influenced varied disciplines of psychology, literature, religious studies, philosophy and anthropology over the years. In the early 20th century, Jung collaborated and corresponded extensively with Sigmund Freud (one of his mentors and pioneer of Psychoanalysis). However, their relationship broke off owing to fundamental differences of opinion surrounding various phenomena such as unconscious, nature of libido, organised religion, etc. Jung later went on to develop a theory of personality, analytical psychology as a systematic field of study as well as the theories of the collective unconscious and the archetypes.
The Swiss belonged to a very pivotal era in his own right, witnessing two World Wars, unprecedented scientific and technological developments, the rise of totalitarian ideologies and a human race losing its spiritual and moral bearings. And today, in spite of all socio-political reforms and fast-tracked development, the world around us has not changed fundamentally. In the words of Jung, the politically poisoned and over-heated atmosphere has become an integral part of our social order. In such times, the relevance of Jung’s teaching and Jungian thought altogether cannot be overestimated, which can help us develop a prescient view of the world and its problems, through the lens of a scholar whose impact is profoundly felt across spiritual, psychological and cultural realms even half a century later.
The Collective Unconcious and Jungian Archetypes
Jung rejected the notion of the human mind being a blank slate at birth (tabula rasa). He argued that the human mind inherits biological aspects, fundamental and unconscious elements of our ancestors, which shape our understanding of the world. Jung divided the human psyche, into three parts: Ego, Personal Unconscious and Collective Unconcious. The collective unconscious is a unique element of the human psyche and serves as a form of psychological inheritance, containing all the knowledge and experiences that humans share as a species.
Interestingly, Jung observed the appearance of typical mythological themes in the delusions of his psychotic patients in the early 1900s. He later carried out an extensive study into the mythology of peoples from all over the world. Jung could also observe the constant appearance of collective, archetypal images in his patients’ phantasies and dreams, as well as in his own unconscious material which led to the hypothesis of collective unconscious theory.
In a lecture given in London in 1936, Jung gave one of the most complete definitions of this concept:
The collective unconscious is a part of the psyche which can be negatively distinguished from the personal unconscious by the fact that it does not, like the latter, owe its existence to personal experience and consequently is not a personal acquisition. While the personal unconscious is made up essentially of contents which have at one time been conscious but which have disappeared from consciousness through having been forgotten or repressed, the contents of the collective unconscious have never been in consciousness, and therefore have never been individually acquired, but owe their existence exclusively to heredity.
What are Archetypes?
Jung believed that archetypes existed in the collective unconscious. He suggested that these models are innate, universal, and hereditary in nature. According to Jung, each archetype played a role in our personality formation but felt that most people were dominated by one specific archetype. He described four major types of archetypes:
The Persona: represents all the different social masks we wear in various groups and situations.
The Shadow: an archetype that consists of sex and life instincts. The shadow exists as part of the unconscious mind and is composed of repressed ideas, weaknesses, desires, instincts, and shortcomings.
The Anima or Animus: the animus represents the masculine aspect in women while the anima represented the feminine aspect in men.
The Self: an archetype that represents the unified unconsciousness and consciousness of an individual.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Jung’s thought process was his non-linear thinking approach, that varied with the changing context and situation. Such an approach has provided Jungian scholars to be flexible in understanding and contextualising archetypes. In another more obvious description, we also have the more famous typologically personified archetypes such as the Great Mother, Hero, Warrior, etc. One such archetype that we’ll look at in detail is that of the Ruler.
“Power is not everything, it is the only thing.”
The Ruler is one of the most recognizable and corruptible Jungian archetypes. The core desire under this archetype is yielding power and exercising control over the masses. The ruler is responsible for the atmosphere of the world they inhabit and are concerned with creating wealth and prosperity in their region. As they consider their actions to be in the best interest of the community, they are ready to even commit atrocities as long as they reach their goal. This at times reflects rulers’ inability to delegate and consider public opinion, The greatest fear of the ruler is that of being overthrown, and chaos. Rulers try to wrestle their way through, but they eventually fall at the cost of massive destruction and bloodshed. The Ruler archetype is also considered one of the most dangerous archetypes to fall into the shadow archetype (unleashing the darker side of the human psyche representing chaos, prejudice, hate, aggression, etc.)
The ruler archetype has also been reflected in many fictional characters over the years. Lord Voldemort of the Harry Potter Series, Miranda Priestly of “The Devil Wears Prada,” and the more famous Big Brother from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 are a few notable examples. The Ruler archetype and its portrayal in literary texts and popular culture are strongly influenced by the political strongmen and totalitarian figureheads of our societies.
In the current socio-political context, CBC News in 2015, talked about Canada’s Federal leaders who stood in the national elections and which archetypal patterns they fitted into. Current Canadian PM Justin Trudeau was seen as a Hero archetypal figure, who generally wants to fight for fairness and make a difference in the world. And in the present global political discourse, Trudeau does come across as a Hero.
What we are witnessing today is the rise of the far-right movements across the world, establishing totalitarian governments in their wake. The goals and actions of such leadership aptly fit into the Ruler archetype framework. They call their actions righteous and a life dedicated to the cause of nation-building. Projecting the other as the enemy, and encouraging the masses to see the problems in other regimes or countries are a few tried and tested tactics. With chronic fear of losing power, these leaders cede no space for public opinion, let alone dissent. And if at all the civil society demands change, these political strongmen fall into their dangerous shadow archetype, unleashing chaos and violence on the whole community.
Jung’s understanding of Politics and the challenges of our times
Jung witnessed the totalitarian regimes of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China in his own lifetime. Such horrendous systems and police-state did not leave any positive impression on a prescient and deeply intuitive individual like Jung. In fact, he despised politics and politicians:
…I am convinced that 99 per cent of politics are mere symptoms and anything but a cure for social evils. About 50 per cent of politics is definitely obnoxious inasmuch as it poisons the utterly incompetent mind of the masses.
Jung considered politicians hungry for power and prestige, which makes the construction of an artificial persona an unavoidable necessity in their line of work. Putting on well-mannered and righteous conduct in public, however, their private life is marred by phobias, fears, obsessive ideas, backslidings, and vices. And they are unable to examine or introspect such divisions of consciousness, setting up more problems for themselves.
According to Jung, scientific and technological developments have destroyed Man’s spiritual and metaphysical bearings, becoming spiritually stagnant, dissatisfied and restless. Such a situation has led man to feel like a victim and deluded by the social systems. Through his clinical experience, Jung also pointed out how readily people use projection in order to find fault with others, rather than work on their own shortcomings. This primitive nature is exploited by political propaganda, which tends to describe other nations as evil and a hindrance to their progress. Always seeing the evil in the opposing group.
For Jung, it was not just the politicians or political systems to blame but rather the collective masses and their participation in such a flawed setup. The moral complacency and lack of responsibility, shown by the citizens in taking up day to day tasks is also a sign of collective apathy and failure. Leaving matters to be taken care of by the “State”, which only works toward isolating the individual and has no interest in promoting interpersonal harmony or a feeling of belongingness.
As a learned scholar who all his life worked towards understanding the human psyche, totality of existence and spiritual meanings, Jung highlighted the need for working towards our spiritual welfare as well as understanding our fellow man. And confronting our shadow, both as individuals and as a society.
In the contemporary world order, where power is associated with military might and economic dominance, Jung had a very humane viewpoint on power: “Power that is constantly asserted works against itself, and it is asserted when one is afraid of losing it. One should not be afraid of losing it. One gains more peace through losing power.
For many, Jung may come across as an idealist or someone from the days gone by. But we as a collective once again stand at a very pivotal moment in our history, with realities of political aggression, climate change, natural catastrophes and corporate greed glaring at us. We are called upon to develop a more essential and holistic understanding of our purpose and actions that would shape and determine our future.
Abdullah Kazmi is a post-graduate student of Media Studies at Hyderabad University.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
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