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Myth And Psychology

In the field of psychology, the theories of the Viennese physician Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) have almost monopolized the study of myth. Freud's key discussion of his key myth, that of Oedipus, fittingly occurs in The Interpretation of Dreams (1913), for he, and Jung as well, compare myths with dreams.

On the surface, or manifest, level, the story of Oedipus describes that figure's vain effort to elude the fate that has been imposed on him. Latently, however, Oedipus most wants to do what manifestly he least wants to do. He wants to act out his "Oedipus complex." The manifest, or literal, level of the myth hides the latent, symbolic meaning. On the manifest level Oedipus is the innocent victim of Fate. On the latent level he is the culprit. Rightly understood, the myth depicts not Oedipus's failure to circumvent his ineluctable destiny but his success in fulfilling his fondest desires.

Yet the latent meaning scarcely stops here. For the myth is not ultimately about Oedipus at all. Just as the manifest level, on which Oedipus is the victim, masks a latent one, on which Oedipus is the victimizer, so that level in turn masks an even more latent one, on which the ultimate victimizer is the myth maker and any reader of the myth smitten with it. Either is a neurotic adult male stuck, or fixated, at his Oedipal stage of development. He identifies himself with Oedipus and through him fulfills his own Oedipus complex. At heart, the myth is not biography but autobiography.

The Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank (1884–1939), who was Freud's protégé at the time but who later broke irrevocably with the master, works out a common plot, or pattern, for one key category of myths: those of male heroes. The heart of the pattern is the decision by the parents to kill their son at birth to avert the prophecy that the son, if born, will one day kill his father. Unbeknownst to the parents, the infant is rescued and raised by others, grows up to discover who he is, returns home to kill his father, and succeeds him as king or noble. Interpreted psychologically, the pattern is the enactment of the Oedipus complex: the son kills his father to gain sexual access to his mother.

Mainstream psychoanalysis has changed mightily since Freud's day. Contemporary psychoanalysts like the American Jacob Arlow (1912–2004) see myth as contributing to normal development rather than to the perpetuation of neurosis. Myth abets adjustment to the social and the physical worlds rather than childish flight from them. Furthermore, myth now serves everyone, not merely neurotics.

The classical Freudian goal is the establishment of oneself in the external world, largely free of domination by parents and instincts. Success is expressed concretely in the form of a job and a mate. Jungians accept that goal, but as that of only the "first half" of life, or from infancy to young adulthood. The goal of the uniquely Jungian second half of life—of adulthood—is consciousness—not, however, of the external world, as summed up by the Freudian term reality principle, but of the distinctively Jungian, or collective, unconscious. One must return to that unconscious, from which one has unavoidably become severed in the first half of life, but not to sever one's ties to the external world. On the contrary, the aim is return in turn to the external world. The ideal is a balance between consciousness of the external world and consciousness of the unconscious. The aim of the second half of life is to supplement, not abandon, the achievements of the first half.

The American mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) provides the classical Jungian counterpart to Rank on hero myths. Where Rank's pattern, limited to males, centers on the hero's toppling of his father, Campbell's centers on a journey, undertaken by an adult female or a male hero, from the known, human world to the heretofore unknown world of gods. Interpreted psychologically, that journey is an inner, not outer, trek from the known portion of the mind—ordinary, or ego, consciousness, the object of which is the external world—to the unknown portion of the mind—the Jungian unconscious. The successful hero must not only reach the strange, new world but also return. In psychological terms, success means the completion of the goal of the second half of life.

The most influential Jungian theorists of myth after Jung himself have been Erich Neumann (1905–1960) and James Hillman (b. 1926). Neumann systematizes the developmental, or evolutionary, aspect of Jungian theory. Jung himself certainly correlates myths with stages of psychological development, but Neumann works out the stages, beginning with the "uroboric" stage of sheer unconsciousness and proceeding to the incipient emergence of the ego out of the unconscious, the development of an independent ego consciousness, and the eventual return of the ego to the unconscious to create the self. Neumann's emphasis on heroism in the first half of life complements Campbell's devotion to heroism in the second half.

By far the most radical development in the Jungian theory of myth has been the emergence of archetypal psychology, which in fact considers itself post-Jungian. The chief figure in this movement is Hillman. Another important figure is David Miller. Archetypal psychology faults classical Jungian psychology on multiple grounds. By emphasizing the compensatory, therapeutic message of mythology, classical Jungian psychology purportedly reduces mythology to psychology and gods to concepts. In espousing a unified self (or "Self") as the ideal psychological authority, Jungian psychology supposedly projects onto psychology a Western, specifically monotheistic, more specifically Christian, even more specifically Protestant outlook. The Western emphasis on progress is purportedly reflected in the primacy Jungian psychology accords hero myths and the primacy it accords the ego, even in the ego's encounter with the unconscious: the encounter is intended to abet development. Finally, Jungian psychology is berated for placing archetypes in an unknowable realm distinct from the known realm of symbols.

As a corrective, Hillman and his followers advocate that psychology be viewed as irreducibly mythological. Myth is still to be interpreted psychologically, but psychology is itself to be interpreted mythologically. One grasps the psychological meaning of the myth of Saturn by imagining oneself to be the figure Saturn, not by translating Saturn's plight into clinical terms like depression. Moreover, the depressed Saturn represents a legitimate aspect of one's personality. Each god deserves its due. The psychological ideal should be pluralistic rather than monolithic—in mythological terms, polytheistic rather than monotheistic, or Greek rather than biblical. Insisting that archetypes are to be found in symbols rather than outside them, Hillman espouses a relation to the gods in themselves and not to something beyond them. The ego becomes but one more archetype with its attendant kind of god, and it is the soul rather than the ego that experiences the archetypes through myths. Myth serves to open one up to the soul's own depths.

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