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In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Saturday, September 1, 2012


"Not all dreams are of equal importance. Even primitives distinguish between 'little' and 'big' dreams, or as we might say, 'insignificant' and 'significant' dreams. Looked at more closely, 'little' dreams are the nightly fragments of fantasy coming from the subjective and personal sphere, and their meaning is limited to the affairs of everyday. Significant dreams, on the other hand, are often remembered for a lifetime, and not infrequently prove to be the richest jewel in the treasure-house of psychic experience. How many people have I encountered who on the first meeting could not refrain from saying: 'I once had a dream!' Sometimes it was the first dream they could ever remember, and one that occurred between the ages of three and five. I have examined many such dreams, and often found in them a peculiarity which distinguishes them from other dreams: they contain symbolical images which we also come across in the mental history of mankind." (C.G. Jung,1945)

I've recently finished Robert A. Segal's THEORIZING ABOUT MYTH, a general overview of several scholars who've written on the topic of myth, including Jung, Campbell, and various others.  Segal's book doesn't go much beyond a basic summary of the scholars' positions and a few of Segal's disagreements with those positions: Segal doesn't formulate any grand theory of myth-interpretation himself.  But as is sometimes the case with such simple summaries, he touched on some points I hadn't yet covered here.  In his chapter on Jung, Segal says:

"An archetypal experience is not any emotional event but only an overwhelming one, the extraordinariness of which stems exactly from the power of the archetype encountered through projection."-- p. 93.

The Jung passage above supports Segal's reading: Jung believes that the "big dreams" dreamed by humankind "prove to be the richest jewel in the treasure-house of psychic experience," because they partake of "the mental history of mankind."  Thus, though Jung doesn't use the word "overwhelming" in the above passage, thr word seems fully applicable to Jung's concept of how archetypes operate.

It then occured to me that Jung's characterization of archetypal inspiration as "overwhelming" compares nicely with what I wrote in this essay:

"Longinus, Burke and Kant all agree that the affect of sublimity comes into being only through a subject's contact with some overwhelming power/might/infinitude." 
So does that mean that archetypal inspiration is one with the experience of the sublime?

In a sense, yes.  However, whereas the descriptions of the sublime by Longinus, Burke and Kant depict the beholder of the sublime in a passive state-- simply being overwhelmed by the might and maginificence of what he beholds-- Jung's subject, upon experiencing archetypal inspiration, becomes active and creative. 

"[The archetype's] form, however ... might perhaps be compared to the axial system of a crystal, which, preforms the crystalline structure in the mother liquid, although it has no material existence of its own. This first appears according to the specific way in which ions and molecules aggregate. The archetype in itself is empty and purely formal, nothing but a facultas praeformandi, a possibility of representation which is given a priori. The representations themselves are not inherited , only the forms, and in that respect they correspond in every way to the instincts."-- Jung, THE ARCHETYPES AND THE COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS, p. 79.

In Jung's view, myth, both in its archaic and modern manifestations, is a creative response to the archetypal experience.  He opposes the idea of "myth as primitive science" advanced by E.B. Tylor and James Frazer, claiming that primitive man possesses an "imperative need... to assimilate all outer sense experiences to inner, psychic events."  I agree, but with the caveat that in many instances primitive humans did look for aspects of "outer sense experiences" that were regularly replicated.  This is the sort of thing Tylor mistook for primitive science; the idea that, for instance, a story about a sun-god was an attempt to understand how the real sun worked. 

In Jung's paradigm, it's impossible to imagine a primitive trying to explain the regular motions of the sun in terms of a figure like Helios driving his chariot across the sky.  However, it would be fair to state that many of the features of the physical world that science would study in terms of their etiology-- the movement of celestial bodies, the characteristics of vegetation, et al-- were sacred clues to the nature of divine power.  The "empty and purely formal" archetype is the principle around which these "clues" aggregated.  For Jung the emotional wonder of beholding the sun as a sacred mystery would be the keystone of making a myth about it, while the specific local details of any given myth were the "ions and molecules" upon which the organizing power acts.

Now, in my essay
PARALLEL PATHS: THE SUBLIME AND THE MYTHIC, I attempted to describe my impression of their parallel qualities, noting:

Neither Burke nor Kant demonstrate any great fascination with mythic symbolism as such. However, I would expand some of the terms they use to describe the sublime, such as "might" or "magnificence," to include the sense of a greater mythic pattern that brings the events of a given story into the wider "family" of mythic narrative. 
For instance, the story of Persephone weaves together a collection of godly figures-- Zeus, Hades, Demeter and Persephone; a literal "family."  We can for sake of argument assume that the first three of them pre-existed the story of Persephone; that a god of the heavens, a god of death and a goddess of the harvest preceded anyone's idea to imagine the annual death and rebirth of vegetation as the descent of Demeter's daughter into darkness.  This would be not only "mythic" in the sense of formulating a more complex story; it would also be "sublime" in giving a basic fact of life an "overwhelming" character, as of something irresistible and fundamental to life. 

However, in
SUBLIMITY VS. MYTHICITY, I wrote that it's difficult to demonstrate the presence of sublime emotion-- whether in archaic myth or contemporary fiction-- except through popular texts.  We know that thousands of moviegoers were entranced by seeing Clint Eastwood incarnate the myth of "frontier justice" in DIRTY HARRY.  But there were any number of "maverick cop" movies before and after DIRTY HARRY that did not so captivate huge audiences.  We cannot say that a more obscure film, like Roy Rowland's 1954 ROGUE COP, did not possess some of the formal qualities found in the Eastwood film.  Yet since it did not inspire an awed response in any audience, contemporary or latter-day, the film cannot be an example as to how a fictional creation inspires a sublime (and essentially passive) response in a large audience.

ROGUE COP could, however, be as mythic as DIRTY HARRY, despite the former's lack of popularity.  Mythicity as I've defined it in my Campbell-derived terms concentrates not on the "organizing principle" but on the "sacred clues" organized by that principle.  I'll have more to say on the potential conflicts between the sublime organizing principle and its mythic "ions and molecules" in a future essay, centering more on Campbell.

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