Author Topic: Archetypal Literary Criticism  (Read 5459 times)

Matt Koeske

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Archetypal Literary Criticism
« on: January 25, 2008, 01:20:48 PM »
. . .just as with myths formulated centuries before Jung was born are amenible to a Jungian analysis (and therefore might appear to be influenced by Jungian thought) so too are more recent stories.

What is interesting to me is how cartoons and the recent influx of Fantasy movies tend to show up the archetypal much better.  This is presumably an unconscious artifact of these respective genre's and the values in those genre's that their respective author's find in them.

My own dream work is based on an effort to refer back to the motifs encountered in dreams.  I use Jung as a theoretical launching point and I have seen Jung's and other Jungian perspectives demonstrated by the "hard data" of actual dreams.  But I could find myself wandering away from Jung and formulating motifs based on neural architecture or just the patterns themselves independently of Jung's particular concepts.  The endurance of Jung's ideas may depend on if his terminology is efficient and explanatory as time goes on.  As such I have begun to see how my approach to dream work could veer into the realm of literary analysis.

On that note it is interesting to see how this Wikipedia article describes the brief period of influence that archetypal literary criticism had in that area of scholarship.

I pulled this quote out of Sealchan's post in the Top 10 "Jungian" Films thread in case anyone is interested in discussing literary criticism in the archetypal or Jungian tradition.

I had the pleasure of being able to actually take a few courses in both Jungian psychology and archetypal literary criticism in college.  I was already well read in Jung before I took the classes, but they gave me the opportunity to apply my Jungian background to interpretive tasks.  These classes were taught by a Jungian analyst, and not surprisingly, he and I hit it off very well.  Not only did I take all the classes he taught, I also did independent studies with him and TA'd one of his classes in Jungian Literary Theory.

One gets a little bit of the feel for this in the Wikipedia article linked above, but I can attest that archetypal literary criticism has a very debased reputation in academia.  Finding a teacher and friend in Ron, who not only was interested in Jung, but was a certified and practicing Jungian analyst, was an amazing stroke of luck for me.  I pretty much earned my degree (in fiction and poetry writing) by applying Jungian literary criticism in all of papers for my non-creative writing classes.

Probably the biggest projects I undertook were extensive Jungian interpretations of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, Homer's Odyssey, and T.S Eliot's collected works.  But we also dealt with a number of myths, fairytales, and short stories in class.

What I came away with was the feeling that Jungian literary interpretation had more in common with creative writing than with scholarly writing.  Really, most literary criticism is like this, but it isn't easy to get academics to admit it.  They like to imagine they are involved in some sort of rigorous excavation of The Truth.  What I discovered as a student was that hardly any of the literature professors knew anything about Jung or his theories.  I was confronted with a lot of prejudice, but also a lot of curiosity about Jungian thinking.

The main body of prejudice against Jungian approaches to literature comes from the postmodernist ilk who have been bred on deconstructionist ideas.  They feel that Jung is an "innatist".  I.e., that Jung (erroneously) believed that there was a core "meaning" to a text.  It is a fundamental dogma of postmodernism that such "innatism" is woefully wrong and archaic.  The postmodernists are usually diehard social constructionists, and their rejection and disparagement of Jung is paralleled by their rejection of any ideas that smack of evolutionary biology.  They are, therefore, Blank Slate theory advocates (although, they would probably not admit to this directly).

Be that as it may, they also have a very skewed and incorrect understanding of Jung and his idea.  Their favorite whipping boy is the collective unconscious.  Many postmodernist social constructionists (who of course have never read Jung) think that Jung's theory of the collective unconscious said that we are born with cultural constructions in us (Lamarckism, basically).  It's true that occasionally Jung did cast a haze around this notion, but only at the furthest outskirts of his theory.  Much of this comes from the confusion between archetypes and archetypal images.  But Jung also disavowed Lamarckism and rejected the criticisms leveled at him as one guilty of the Lamarckist fallacy.  It is easy to reject Jung's theory of archetypes when the theory is distorted into an obviously incorrect form.  And that distortion and prejudice was all she wrote for Jung as far as postmodern literary theorists are concerned.  He does not have a seat at the table.

Of course, correctly applied, archetypal theory uncovers some very compelling things.  And although the interpretive technique is creative (and has a high degree of arbitrariness built in), it is not by any means an act of divination.  There are (I would contest) guidelines and even "laws" in Jungian interpretation that give it a foundation and structure.  But there are also some significant pitfalls that contribute to its ostracization from the academic criticism canon.

First of all (and the Jungians can't be faulted for this), its value as a tool for making sense both of a text and of the creative process behind that text is limited.  This is a byproduct of the fact that an archetypal concentration emphasizes that which is unconscious and unintentioned.  So (as Sealchan pointed out in the post I quoted from above), the author need not have intended to "mean" such and such to have constructed an archetypal story.  Of course, the postmodernists have also celebrated the "Death of the Author".  After all, they draw on Freud's theory of the unconscious (extracted through the wackiness of Lacan) to dismiss authorial intentionality.  Although the postmodernist claim is that the author's story is constructed of culturally-dependent assumptions that, once deconstructed, leave nothing.  That's why Jung's "innatism" is so disturbing to them.  When Jungians peal away the "cultural constructions", they still see archetypes.  Postmodernists (as dogmatists of their own credos), believe that Jungian archetypes are also cultural constructions (or perhaps projections).

But even in the properly executed Jungian style of criticism, the aesthetics and craft of literature are ignored.  The Jungians have nothing to say on these matters (and tend to be a bit thick-headed when confronted with them).  As it is beyond question that authors apply aesthetic ideas and developed craft or technique in the creation of their texts (i.e., conscious design), the ignorance of these things in the Jungian method mean that a significant part of the process of literary creation is left unaddressed.  Think what an art critic would be like if he was color blind . . . or a food critic would be like if s/he had no taste buds for sweetness.

Since conventionally, the Jungians are a therapeutic community, their interest in literature has only been directed at its application to the understanding of human behavior.  And so the people most skilled at Jungian interpretation are rarely the ones interested in developing and refining a literary theory.

Beyond this problem, there is the issue of how accurate, even within its own paradigm, Jungian theory is.  That is, the Jungian method does an excellent job of spotting archetypal/instinctual phenomena in dreams, fantasies, religion, and art . . . but it is still struggling with the specifics of how and why the archetypes work.  In my opinion, there are flaws in the conventional Jungian conceptions of the shadow and the animi . . . and also a failure to make a key differentiation in the hero archetype.  As to the latter, there is still muddiness in the hero regarding the so-called "conquering mode" (as seen in various warrior types and dragon slayers) and how that might relate to the "sacrificial mode" (as seen in the Christ myth and in spiritual or individuation work).

As for the shadow, there is (in my opinion) too much conflation of the archetype with "evil" . . . and this is not well reconciled with the idea of the shadow-as-Other (Other, not enemy).  Additionally, the conventional Jungian tendency to see the Self and other archetypes as polarized Opposites with good/bad moral differences places a limitation on the Jungian ability to really understand the psychic (and biological) value of "darkness" as a constructive complement or as fertile soil.  I.e., darkness is too often seen as something to be "illuminated" by consciousness, but not truly integrated and related to.

And the animi, well, they're a real mess.  The Jungian understanding of the anima work is fractured, skewed, and dangerously abbreviated . . . and the animus is barely differentiated from the shadow and smothered in various dated prejudices.

I've gone into all these things in detail elsewhere, so I won't elaborate on them here.  I mean only to suggest that as valuable as I see Jungian literary interpretation being (potentially), I also feel it really doesn't have enough to "sell itself" to the academic world of literary criticism currently . . . even if academia was willing to buy (which it isn't, due to its own prejudices and shortcomings).

But, for lay interpreters like us, Jungian interpretation of literature can be a lot of fun and conduct us into a process of wonderful discovery (discovery of both Self and Other).  For me, it enriches my appreciation of literature immeasurably, illuminating complexities and emphasizing core, human archetypal experiences that would have otherwise slipped by unseen.  It helps me understand why I am drawn to and powerfully affected by certain texts and why others put me off.  And it also helps me better appreciate the natural humanness behind creation . . . a thing that most non-artists (and even many artists) find mysterious, alien, and inaccessible.

You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.

   [Bob Dylan,"Mississippi]