A puzzle for the three theories of the “why”

I have started exploring the question of “why”: the question, that is, why gaining more soul has to proceed by a gradual distancing from the external world, from social relations and daytime consciousness. I have pointed out three theoretical approaches that can be found in the (broadly) Jungian tradition, each of which answers the question in a different way.

3. But there is a certain difficulty which all three theories equally face, and it will be instructive to see how each of them would be equipped to deal with it. We can begin to understand what the difficulty is from a point Campbell makes, with characteristic rhetorical flourish, about the complications a return from the underworld typically faces.

There must always remain […], from the standpoint of normal waking consciousness, a certain baffling inconsistency between the wisdom brought forth from the deep, and the prudence usually found to be effective in the light world.

Joseph Campbell, The hero with a thousand faces, 188.

Now this fundamental difference between nightworld insightfulness and dayworld effectiveness, which results in such “baffling inconsistency”, is of course in some sense the reason why there is a journey in the first place; and Campbell (being a proponent of the second theory from my last post) makes use of the distinction when he discusses the difficulties for the hero on his return. (The passage I have just quoted comes from Campbell’s introduction to the theme of “crossing the return threshold”.) The hero must not only learn strange and unfamiliar perspectives in the course of his adventure, he has to also bring them back to his ordinary life world, to teach and apply them. And that is difficult almost by definition: “How to render back into light-world language the speech-defying pronouncements of the dark? […] How to communicate to people who insist on the exclusive evidence of their senses the message of the all-generating void?” (Ibd., 188-189.)

4. But there is a strange blind spot in the picture Campbell paints.

As long as we narrowly focus only on the phase of the return, it seems a plausible configuration: there is the dayworld, full of people living their lives, prudently and effectively, by following only the “evidence of their senses” (meaning, by extension: the prescripts of proven practices and empirical science, both of which are pragmatically reliable and intersubjectively comparable — which is, of course, the whole point); there is the hero, having vanished (for which read: gone introspective) and returned, making now reference to the “speech-defying pronouncements of the dark”. And those two clash and conflict, and being a lone voice in the bustle of a huge collective, social world, the hero will have great difficulties.

Yet this cannot be the whole story for an account such as Campbell’s, since such an account cannot merely focus on this constellation. There must be a pressing (and intelligible) need for the hero’s journey to begin with, and we have seen already that such a need arises when it becomes clear that the collective, social world doesn’t work (or doesn’t work any more). The need for the journey, to which the hero responds, is one that originates from this fact that the ordinary world doesn’t work (any more), and this fact must be clear in the earlier phases of the mythical narrative. Yet how can we then be entitled to simply ignore or forget it when we look at the later stages? If, at the time of the hero’s return, the world (the day-world, that is), suddenly is in best order, and everybody can simply go about their business effectively and ignore the hero’s message, then that is not just a difficulty for the returning hero, but it is a difficulty for the entire story — the whole journey comprising both the descent and ascent legs. (Viz. the dire situation a returning hero often encounters in the day world, as Oedipus does with the Sphinx or Odysseus does with the suitors who have taken over his house. These narratives precisely steer clear of the blind spot that Cambell’s view incorporates.)

5. If a difficulty for the second theory results from the distinction in the Campbell quote above, we can ask whether that distinction is therefore a weakness of just that theory in a comparison with the other two — or whether it presents a difficulty for those as well.

The first theory took its departure from the idea that the day world (its overwhelming presence to the senses) simply interferes with the production of soul, and that such disturbance is the reason why one would seek inward focus (descend, metaphorically, into the underworld). Going inward is, on that account, a kind of enabling strategy for soul-work. And in contrast to the second theory we are not committed, on the first theory, to the idea that the dayworld must suffer some deficiency which then triggers the journey. On the first theory, we can assume that the dayworld, from its own perspective, is working all fine. (We don’t have to assume this, of course, and if we were to try and hold both the first and second theory, which I have suggested are compatible with each other, we obviously shouldn’t.)

But still, even on the first theory we must include some element of need which gets the journey going. There must be a reason or incentive for the individual who begins to withdraw from the external world and goes inward. That incentive doesn’t have to be (as in the second theory), a problem the collective faces. (In fact, the distinguishing mark of the second theory is that, on that theory, the triggering need is always one from the collective: it’s the collective that requires Campbell’s hero to go on the journey and bring about its spiritual renewal. Without that element, we wouldn’t have a theory of this second kind any more.) But there must be something, from the individual’s point of view, which makes it plausible to embark on the journey — and then to register that the external and social world make that difficult which, in turn, leads to withdrawal and the underworld trip. And then we have to be careful not to run into the same trap — or produce the same kind of blind spot — again.

On the first theory, the blind spot would look like this: something in the individual pushes them onto the path of soul-work (an archetype triggers, a midlife transition forces itself on the individual, or what we call a spiritual breakdown or spiritual emergency appears); the individual follows that call and begins to withdraw into the inner world; after substantial time and work there, they have transformed into a fuller individual with a richer and more balanced psychology closer to what Jung calls the Self; and now they return to the broader world, take up their social and interpersonal relationships afresh. However, owing to their transformation, they have now become creative, idiosyncratic, perhaps even eccentric, and the conflict in Campbell’s distinction (between the pronouncements of the dark and the effectiveness of the light world) plays out. On the first theory, however, the external world had never perceived the need that started the journey: only the individual had seen that — and the individual themselves has now transformed into someone at the end of the process. Thus just as with the second theory, there seems to be no plausible way in the story, at that later stage, to make the original need for the journey itself intelligible.

To repeat: this is not to say (neither with respect to the first nor the second theory) that this difficulty cannot be overcome. But an explanation of the “why”, i.e. an account of why soul-making needs to proceed via a distancing from the social and interpersonal world, would have to take some care that all the players in the narrative, during all the stages when they act and drive the narrative, have some need or motivation behind these. It seems insufficient that only the broader narrative (the abstract outlining of the monomyth, say), reads such needs or motivations into the dynamic.

6. We have seen that Campbell’s distinction poses a somewhat similar difficulty for both the first and second theory. Now when it comes to the third theory, there is still a complication — but it takes a different form, and I think it can be addressed (although it forces us to make an assumption).

The third theory started from the observation that the external world (especially in its social and interpersonal structures) is essentially collective, and that the need for the underworld journey arises from a process of individuation against that backdrop. The nekyia is of course only one stage, perhaps not even a universal one, in the individuation process — and obviously, one needs to subscribe to some form of general account where an individuation process is set against collective structures in the first place, too. (Jung’s version of that sort of general account is directly formulated as an account of an individuation process, whereas Hillman’s is more mythically submerged in his “acorn theory” of The Soul’s Code. An alternative, more naturalistic version can be found in Robert Greene’s Mastery.)

Given some notion of individuation, we can easily see how the sides of the conflict in the Campbell quote are distributed. The “effective prudence” would generally be on the collective side, whereas the “pronouncements of the dark” appear as progressively individualistic. We recognize them in idiosyncrasies, creativity, or any kind of personal achievements which stand out; and the further the individuation process goes, the greater the gulfs between individual expression and the collective generally become. (That, of course, is a truism; but I consider this a strength of the third theory: it accounts for the distinction from within, rather than sidestepping it, as the other two theories do.) All this doesn’t have to lead into in a dualism, either: for even though some of the collective psyche is represented by the dayworld, the collective and the dayworld don’t of course coincide (there is much more to the collective psyche than the visible mass psychology we can observe; and at least in some authors, notably Jung again, this is quite explicit, too). Moreover, the structure of an individual psyche itself is generally (at least in the three authors I listed) thought of as a unique combination of collective traits. Taken together, these considerations should ensure that we don’t glide towards simplistic dualities.

But we still encounter the difficulty under discussion. If the journey to the underworld results in “dark pronouncements” in contrast with “effective prudence”, then consequently the individuation process (at least in those instances where it does in fact include a nekyia) makes the individual progressively ineffective and estranges them from the external world. (Plato, as so often, provides the locus classicus of this effect in the episode, early in the Symposium, in which Socrates sinks into oblivion on  his way to the party, and has to be awaited.) And one cannot help but asking: why would anyone embark on that path, then? Why would one “become oneself” in the sense of developing an individual consciousness, bringing that unique combination of collective traits into a whole, doing all that work and taking all that risk — if everything they gain is isolation and becoming unintelligible to anyone else?

While in the first and second theories the forces that triggered the encompassing journey were known initially and then later (on return from the underworld) somehow disappeared in a blind spot, in the third theory the difficulty shows up in a converse manner: it makes it harder to see why the entire process would start to begin with, while having the later developments falling into place quite naturally and plausibly.

It is at this point where we have to make the assumption that, nonetheless, the individuation process on the whole is not just beneficial (or necessary) for the individual, but that also, paradoxically, the collective benefits in some way from it (if accomplished, i.e. including a completed return leg). Holding the assumption would make the second and third theories a good fit for each other (in fact, we can read concrete statements of the second theory, such as Campbell’s view in Hero, as a way of making the assumption and thus rendering themselves compatible with the third theory, which is often seen as a cornerstone of Jungianism).

If we refuse to make the assumption, what options have we left? One would be to posit an irreconcilable conflict, an eternal enmity between the individual and the collective. Here, however, it gets even harder to explain what, on the third theory, gets the whole process going. (Remember that in Jung, this would generally be an inner conflict, even a neurotic one, which constellates an archetype, i.e. a collective pattern. Under the hypothesis of enmity between collective and individual — why would the archetypes trigger the production of individual consciousness? Do we just have to accept this as a paradoxical fact without explanation?) A second would locate the triggering factors outside those structures in the collective psyche which account for effectiveness in the external world (which Hillman frequently calls “spirit”, and which Jung often identifies with scientific modernity), and thus effectively split up the collective unconscious (which is a move for which much can be said).

Notice, however, that both options would require us to severely rethink the notion of soul-making itself: for soul-making, with these options — i.e. if we don’t make the assumption of a mystic vanishing point where individual consciousness and the collective unconscious become unified — would no longer something that can be seen as coming out of soul. A Hillmanian telos of soul-making, then, would become unintelligible. And thus, if this entire line of thought is correct, at least Hillman’s idea of soul-making as a kind of telos would be committed to the assumption.

By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.

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