Today, the 50th anniversary of C.G. Jung’s death, an excellent introduction to his ideas appears on the BBC website, reflecting on what Jung would make of 2011.
Among many other concepts that have entered our culture, he coined the terms extravert (nowadays called extrovert) and introvert. I suspect he would have been fascinated and appalled by the modern web’s capacity to allow us to be both at once, walling ourselves off from our environment completely while sharing our inmost thoughts with billions of strangers.
But I digress: this blog is not about theories of personality. Rather, it is about mythology and its intersection with the modern world. On this, too, Jung has much to say. For Jung, although he never quite put it this way, mythology represents the dreams and personality of a culture rather than of an individual. That is, just as individuals have dreams that express feelings, desires, memories, fears, and other currents bubbling up from our unconscious, myths are the dreams and stories which bubble up from the collective unconscious (our group imagination). Stories that “ring true” for many people over generations get told and retold and preserved. They are shaped by and shape what most people in that group think, feel, and value most over several generations.
In America, for example, we’ve got George Washington and his cherry tree, the Statue of Liberty and her “huddled masses yearning to breathe free“, Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus, or the myth of Manifest Destiny (not quite as dead as one might hope) . These are American myths. Their cultural importance does not depend on whether they are factually true, but on how each “rings true” for many Americans, how we perceive these stories, use them as inspiration or guidelines, pass them on and apply them to our world.
Mythology and psychology are strongly related; each influences the other.
That is the most important thing I learned from Carl Gustav Jung, along with its corollary, that most people need guiding myths to inspire us, so that the lack of common stories contributes to social factioning and miscommunication, and a sense of loss of meaning and purpose on the personal level. Without mythology, we look up in the sky and see just points of light. With mythology, we see constellations: not only as useful units of organization, but as pictures; we see Star Trek and Star Wars; we see our descendants living Out There; or we may imagine doomsday asteroids, omens, UFOs. Again, it doesn’t matter whether they are true; what matters is their psychological impact and meaning for us.
This blog is dedicated to the premise that as geographical and cultural borders collapse and reshape themselves, mythology becomes cross-cultural even as it fails its old function (elaborated more fully by Joseph Campbell) of establishing and maintaining cultural identity. We no longer have a shared body of myths: instead, different groups and people adapt and are drawn to myths that suit their own needs or personalities, creating virtual tribes just as social media has allowed us to establish virtual circles of friends. These myths are more fluid, and most people take them as metaphors (a la Joseph Campbell) more than literally true — with the exception of fundamentalists. Myths seldom function as the guiding principle of any one culture quite the way they used to be, yet we can recognize stories and myths from around the world that ring true regarding events and cultural changes happening around the world.
I think Jung would recognize some of the divisions going on in the world today as the struggles of many competing mythic systems, different landscapes of the imagination, struggling to maintain their borders ever more fiercely now that borders are so easy to cross.
My Favorite Carl Jung Book:
Not strictly theoretical, this is Jung’s self-mythology, stories about his life which “ring true” and help to illuminate and explain his psychological theories.