CHAPTER TWO ~ The Collective Unconscious

This chapter outlines a version of the theoretical concept of the collective unconscious and explains how Jungian therapists apply the theory in the treatment of disorders such as problem behaviour in adolescents. It also discusses the possibility that myths may have the potential to work therapeutically or counter-therapeutically on a broader cultural level.

The central tenet of the theory of the collective unconscious is that evolution and heredity provide a blueprint of the psyche just as they provide a blueprint for the body. Unpacked, this idea illuminates two sides of an individual’s psychology, the personal, which arises from personal experience, and the collective, which is made up of primordial images that all humans share.

If psychoanalysis of an individual can reveal aspects of his or her personal psychology, how can the collective unconscious be brought to light for examination? According to Jungian theory: “It is only by analyzing and interpreting symbols, dreams, fantasies, visions, myths and art that one can obtain any knowledge of the collective unconscious.” (Hall & Nordby, 1973, p. 111). This notion represents a case in favour of the retelling of ancient myths, as a means of offering up for examination themes and characters from the collective unconscious.

Why seek to understand the collective unconscious? Because “Archetypes are constantly influencing and directing the conscious behavior of the person” (Hall & Nordby, 1973, p. 111) and problem behaviour can therefore often be illuminated by reference to mythic themes. In addition, psychological interventions can be provided that are in keeping with the mythic blueprint. Joseph Campbell (Campbell & Moyers, 1988, p. 30) calls this the pedagogical function of myths, or their ability to teach “how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances”. An example of this in action can be seen in the development over the last thirty years of new approaches to treating adolescent problem behaviour.

Psycho-social researcher Richard Jessor for many years appeared to be a voice in the wilderness with his claim that adolescent problem behaviour is functional, purposive and instrumental towards the attainment of goals (Jessor & Jessor, 1977). Many people still prefer to shake their heads and say ‘I don’t know what’s become of the youth of today’. According to Jessor, Jessor and Finney (1973) functions of adolescent drug use that can potentially outweigh negative consequences (in a decision making process) include negotiation for, or claim upon, a status transformation, such as coward to hero. Jessor’s position is to some extent supported by others such as Eric Erikson (1959) who wrote about adolescent experimentation with dangerous behaviours as part of the identity formation process and Baumrind (1985) who said that from a developmental perspective adolescent experimentation, including experimentation with substance use, is normal.

In mythic terms these three claims can all be said to refer to ‘rites of passage’ and equated with tribal rituals such as a young Indian’s first bear hunt, which gave him the right to a status transformation from boy to man (Campbell & Moyers, 1988, p. 82). By referring to the common mythic, or collective unconscious, theme of entering adulthood via initiation the dangerous behaviour becomes rational and the young client becomes an intelligent person who can be dealt with respectfully, rather than a fool who doesn’t understand that drugs are dangerous. Acceptance of this notion by Jungian and eclectic psychologists has given rise to a number of projects such as boot camps and the Leeuwin adventures that attempt to replicate the rite of passage experience of danger in a more wholesome manner than young people seeking to make the shift into adulthood may otherwise be psychologically driven to revert to.

On a broader cultural level, Jung, writing in 1930 about mythic literature and the appearance of these themes at difference times, said:

What is of particular importance for the study of literature in these manifestations of the collective unconscious is that they are compensatory to the conscious attitude. This is to say that they can bring a one-sided, abnormal or dangerous state of consciousness into equilibrium in an apparently purposive way.
(Jung, 1972, p. 183)

Later he says: “Every period has its bias, its particular prejudice and its psychic ailment. An epoch is like an individual; it has its own limitations of conscious outlook. And therefore requires a compensatory adjustment” (Jung, 1972, p. 183). The essence of his argument is that literature and art that access and feed the collective unconscious can create change on this level, adjusting the collective conscious attitude.

Campbell discusses the social control function of myth saying that myths serve to support and validate a certain social order. Calling for the creation of new mythology capable of encouraging an attitude of stewardship towards our delicate planet, as opposed to the man-conquers-nature myths, he says: “It is this sociological function of myth that has taken over in our world ~ and it is out of date” (Campbell & Moyers, 1988, p.31).

Plato, in The Republic also comments on the danger to society of outdated or skewed myths saying:

such lies are positively harmful. For those who hear them will be lenient towards their own shortcomings if they believe that this sort of thing is and was always done by the relations of the gods. … We must put a stop to stories of this kind before they breed vicious habits in our young men.
(1958, p. 129)

Collectively these views suggest that myths can not only illustrate patterns that exist within the collective unconscious, they can also be used to provide therapeutic guidance on personal and cultural levels and that the wrong myths told at the wrong time can do harm, just as the right myths told at the right time can be useful. The next chapter focuses in on the nexus between mythology and contemporary writing, drawing attention to similarities and differences between Pomegranate Flesh and a selection of other writings influenced by Jung’s perspective on mythology.

[Chapter Three ~ Story as Medicine]