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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, January 22, 2015

THE WORK AND PLAY MIX-A-LOT

Before I move on to any further projects as mentioned in the last post, I want to connect another line of dots between the Jung theory of play I've been mentioning and another Jung-quote I've come back to repeatedly, his explanation of the relation of the archetypes and their content:

[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 LOVE FIRST LOVE I extrapolated one hypothetical way as to how the cognitive contents of a given myth might be comparable to Jung's "ions and molecules," and how they would be given orderly form via the "axial system" of said myth.  As an example I chose a non-specific, generalized example of a "sun-myth."

 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.


This attempt to prioritize the experience of emotional wonder parallels Jung's aforementioned emphasis upon imaginative play in creative work of any kind.


Not the artist alone but every creative individual whatsoever owes all that is greatest in his life to fantasy. The dynamic principle of fantasy is play, a characteristic also of the child, and as such it appears inconsistent with the principle of serious work. But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable." (Jung, PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES, 1921, page 63.)



The metaphor of the first statement, then, might be profitably applied to the outright second statement.  If "play" is at the center of creative endeavor in a manner analogous to the axial system that organizes the crystal, then Jung's "principle of serious work" is analogous to the molecules that physically make up the crystal.

This becomes an important metaphor because it is has long been the mistake of reflective critics to mistake the "molecules" for the entire substance.




Case in point: Freud's famous interpretation of the Oedipus myth as he and other moderns knew it through the plays of Sophocles. For the positivist psychologist, existence preceded any theoretical essence.  Thus, even though Oedipus did not know that he killed his father and married his mother, the events of the play were for Freud indicative of a universal psychological pattern related to juvenile development. This psychological pattern would be a "cognitive content" comparable to the "features of the physical world" found in archaic sun-myths. For both E.B. Tylor and Sigmund Freud, the significance of myths was that they showed archaic man reflecting, as it were, on the elements of their mundane existence and turning those elements into outrageous myth.

I would like to think that I have not fallen very far into this positivistic trap, of thinking that the cognitive content of a myth or story is the primary content. The mental effort that encodes such contents into myths and stories is a form of "work," and there's a rigorous pleasure that comes to the critic who manages to "break the codes." However, at the heart of this sort of criticism is the privileging of the cognitive over the affective that marks all phases of reflective philosophy.

Let us assume for the moment that Freud's discernment has some unquestionable relevance to a proper analysis of the literary Oedipus myth.  If so, Freud has successfully analyzed at least some of the "molecules" that make up the myth. But can one see that analysis within a greater sphere that also analyzes the axial system, the organizing principle that makes Oedipus affectively appealing?

Obviously I think that there is. With sun-myths the cognitive contents of myths about the heavenly bodies are only significant because they are stepping-stones to humankind's attitude of wonder toward the heavens. In similar fashion, cognitive psychological contents are stepping-stones to humankind's fascination with its own codes of behavior, a fascination that Bataille has so amply rendered as the relation of "the taboo" (the means by which the society orders itself in order to work efficiently) and "the transgression" (the means by which members of the society express a rebellious "free play" attitude toward the very things that make society possible).

Following this thread, the "molecules" of the Oedipus myth might indeed be those of Freud, of repressed love for the mother and hostility to the father. But the "axial system" arranging those molecules is not unique to that particular crystalline formation.

Regard this example of thwarted romantic love from FANTASTIC FOUR #1:



Now, there are many "cognitive contents" to be found within this classic comic book. The putative Oedipal complex, however, is not among them.

Nevertheless, the FF story shows a similar "taboo-and-transgression" psychological pattern. Though Lee and Kirby do not devote much space to the buried conflict between Reed Richards and Ben Grimm, Grimm's intemperate outburst-- "I'll prove to you that you love the wrong man, Susan!'-- makes it unquestionable that Lee and Kirby were rehashing a familiar trope that might be termed "two male friends fighting over the same woman." The "taboo" in this case is Sue, because she's in love  with Reed; they've even said to be engaged in the first story, though later issues of the comic quickly rewrote that status. The "transgression" is Grimm's unrequited desire for her, in defiance of both social custom and the self-evident status of the couple's relationship to one another.

It's my claim that at base this interrelationship of taboo and transgression defines the origin-story of the Fantastic Four just as much as it does the literary story of Oedipus, for all that the two stories possess radically different cognitive contents.

And this, in summation, is why it's perilous for reflective critics to presume that they have "solved" the nature of a literary narrative simply because they've found some sociological or psychological theme that they think defines the narrative or its author.  By making such reductive assumptions, they aren't validating the imaginative play-principle that Jung champions. They're just "reflecting" their own good opinions of their intellectual perspicacity, removing all joy and wonder from the story in order to concentrate on the "lessons" it supposedly teaches. (And even worse is their tendency to yield to the idea that "good works" are only those that teach the lessons that they themselves consider proper-- be they lessons of extreme liberalism, as seen in J.M. Coetzee's DISGRACE, or extreme conservatism, as seen in Thomas Dixon's CLANSMAN.)

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