Erich Neumann was a psychologist, philosopher, and student of Carl Jung who in 1954 wrote, “The Origins and History of Consciousness.” Neumann’s work also had an anthropological dimension, seeing the evolution of human consciousness was beyond the grasp of our conscious mind and would be understood only by utilizing mythology.
Neumann knew that the real “workings” of human civilization were beneath the surface and presented themselves occasionally as eruptions of chthonic energy known as, “archetypes.” These patterns of instinctual energy, to the astute observer, are an essential dimension of human history and can offer something to one’s tribe, be it a, “prophetic word” or…more often than not…an example of gross mental instability. These intrusions from beyond the pale of the cultural canon threaten what Neumann called, “the old order” even though the resulting “new order” could facilitate a revitalization of the canon. But the “old order” never goes quietly and bearers of this chthonic energy are “kept in their place” by the tribes’ repertoire of exclusionary devices; for example, shame, humiliation or even crucifixion. If, however, this chthonic energy somehow penetrates the barriers and finds even a tentative footing, the “old order” will resort to “hunkering down” and reaffirm passionately the traditional values of the canon, often with reference to the prevailing religion. This is when the leadership, i.e. “the tribal elders” need to use their authority in a mature fashion and facilitate the integration of the new and the old, allowing a healthy venture toward further maturity. But often maturity is so often lacking in the tribal leadership and the machinery of government will be used to squash what it perceives as an existential threat.
Here are a trio of excerpts from Neumann’s book as he addresses concerns he had for the world in the mid-twentieth century, concerns which are very much related to this historical moment.
Excerpt 1: Not only power, money, lust, but religion, art, and politics as exclusive determinants in the form of parties, nations, sects, movements, and “isms” of every description take possession of the masses and destroy the individual. (NOTE: For an individual to be a meaningful entity, it must have enough independence to not be merely a slave to the dictates of the group.)
Excerpt 2: The picture we have drawn of our age is not intended as an indictment, much less as a glorification of the “good old days”; for the upheaval which, taken by and large, is necessary. The collapse of the old civilization, and its reconstruction on a lower level to begin with, will justify themselves because the new basis will have been immensely broadened. The civilization that is about to be born will be a human civilization in a higher sense than has any been before higher civilization, as it will overcome important social, national, and racial limitations. These are not fantastic pipe dreams, but hard facts, and their birth pangs will bring infinite suffering upon infinite numbers of men. Spiritually, politically, and economically our world is an indivisible whole. By this standard, the Napoleonic wars were minor coups d’etat, and the world view of that age, in which anything outside Europe had hardly begun to appear, is almost inconceivable to us in its narrowness.
Excerpt 3: The collapse of our archetypal canon in our culture which has produced such an extraordinary activation of the collective unconscious—or is perhaps its symptom, manifesting itself in mass movements that have a profound effect upon our personal destinies—is, however, only a passing phenomenon. Already, at a time when the internecine wars of the old canon are still being waged, we can discern, in simple individuals, where the synthetic possibilities of the future lie, and almost how it will look. The turning of the mind from the conscious to the unconscious, the responsible rapprochement of human consciousness with the powers of the collective psyche, that is the task of the future. No outward tinkerings with the world and no social ameliorations can give the quietus to the daemon, to the gods and devils of the human soul, or prevent them from tearing down again and again what consciousness has built. Unless they are assigned their place in consciousness and culture they will never leave mankind in peace.
We are now witnessing the collapse of our culture’s archetypal canon as its “givens” are being challenged. These “givens” are the medley of preconceptions and premises that we take for granted that are so subtle they are not apparent to the naked eye. The absence of “apparent-cy” is necessary for this unconscious dimension to continue unthreatened by an “observing ego” which could be a reality check that would allow these subterranean influences to be moderated. But keeping these influences unquestioned, and therefore unassailable, is the primary objective of the status quo which deems questioning as threatening to its very being. However, without a reality check on the “very being” of a tribe, its heart will be nothing but a darkened prison, “where we bask, agreed upon what we will not ask, bland, sunny, and adjusted by the light of the agreed upon lie.” What we will take for light will actually be darkness, “having eyes to see but seeing not.” And though it might be very comfy for those within the safe confines of Auden’s “agreed upon lie,” those who live beyond its pale will suffer.
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