Jung and the Jungians on Myth by Steven F. Walker: The Mechanisms of Mass Movements

In the last few years, the world seems to have turned upside down with surprising numbers of people now violently acting out what was once considered unimaginable. Reviewed by Mathew V. Spano


In the last few years, the world seems to have turned upside down with surprising numbers of people now violently acting out what was once considered unimaginable. Indeed, at times we seem to live in a world of mass psychosis. What accounts for such large numbers of people falling under the influence of such destructive collective movements? In True Believer, Eric Hoffer wrote that mass movements depend upon the complete abdication of one's individuality: "To ripen a person for self-sacrifice he must be stripped of his individual identity and distinctiveness...The most drastic way to achieve this end is by complete assimilation of the individual into a collective body" (60). While Hoffer's work remains valuable for its description of the fanatic active in many mass movements, these movements are comprised not only of the frustrated and the alienated, but also in large part of the "normal" and "well adjusted." Still, mass movements are often catalyzed by charismatic individuals-messiah figures, whose inner workings (especially those leading destructive movements) we need to understand better, as Dhirendra Sharma mentions in his recent editorial:

Perhaps the scientists engaged in the Genome Project in due course of time can tell us the gene-code of the fraternity common to all these messiahs of Holy Wars, the Crusaders, the Jihadis, and the Holocausters-Hitlers, Stalins, Pol Pots, Prabhakarans and Osama bin-Ladens. (8)

C.G. Jung, though not a geneticist, had much to say about the collective instinctual forces behind those who have felt called by some greater destiny and compelled to act irrationally and even violently toward its fulfillment. In his new book entitled Jung and the Jungians on Myth (Routledge, 2002), Steven Walker explains C.G. Jung's view that the mass of humans-messiahs and misfits as well as those in the main stream-are prone to live out myths both individually and collectively unless they work to bring these activated myths up into consciousness. Like Hoffer, Jung believed in the necessity of the individual to free himself from collective impulses, a process he called "individuation." In explaining this core concept of Jung's, Walker concludes that "The successful freeing of the individual psyche from fatal compulsions, the loosening of its attachment to the unconscious, is the necessary first step toward world peace" (86). More than just a primer of Jungian psychology, Steven Walker's book does an excellent job of explaining the Jungian mechanisms through which collective impulses exert their influence on the individual as well as the techniques that Jung recommended to counter those impulses. And, as Walker makes clear, it is in Jung's theory on myth that one finds most of these important insights.

We follow Walker down through "the strange mythology of the psyche," where he skillfully describes the central archetypes, those primal forms or tendencies to shape instinct that arise from the collective unconscious and that manifest themselves in psychic images. In explaining the shadow, "the archetype of collective evil," Walker notes,

In wartime or in any other situation of political confrontation the shadow is likely to be projected onto the enemy side, which is consequently viewed as hopelessly depraved, vicious, cruel, and inhuman...At the same time our side, having projected its shadow contents onto the enemy, appears to be all good and thoroughly justified in bombing the enemy back into the Stone Age, if necessary! (34)

Walker examines the influence of the anima, "the unconscious female element in a man [that] compensates for his conscious masculinity" (45) on the contemporary American male, who locks his anima away in the dungeon, so to speak, leaving her undeveloped and repressing his feeling (eros) so that when he does express it, it is sentimental and resentful. In reading Walker's discussion of the undeveloped, unintegrated anima in dreams and myth, where she appears in monstrous form, one better understands the patriarchy's projection of this inner demoness onto the outer world, a projection which manifests itself in a fearful attitude toward and oppression of actual women (one need only think of the Taliban's view of women). As Walker explains, the animus, "the unconscious masculine element in a woman [that] compensates for her conscious femininity" (45), may also play a role in the misunderstanding between the sexes. The undeveloped animus, as depicted in women's dreams and folktales, manifests in cold, brutal, defensive opinions in a woman-an attitude that irritates the undeveloped patriarchal anima to feel resentment and prompts the patriarchy to stereotype women in general as irrational and to oppress them. Walker goes on to describe other key archetypes: the hero, wise old man, great mother, divine child, and Self. Noteworthy for those interested in twentieth century mass movements is Walker's discussion of Jung's 1913 dream of murdering the Germanic hero Siegfried. At this time of crisis in his life, Walker explains, Jung saw the necessity to detach himself from the influence of the hero archetype in order to remain faithful to his individuation.

Working with both personal and collective contexts, Jung came to see his dream as representing his own rejection of the role of Freud's heroic son as well as his fear of Germany's inflation with the archetypal hero manifesting in its rising nationalism and militarism. Through examples such as this, Walker allows us to appreciate the full range of the archetypes' influence.

To further explain this influence, Walker defines such crucial Jungian terms as compensation, inflation, deflation, and projection. These definitions are essential for understanding the mechanisms by which individuals and groups come to act upon a "constellated" (activated) archetype. And Walker's concise and subtle language makes these complex mechanisms reachable: "...there is a fine line between being possessed by an archetype-identifying oneself with it too much (the state of inflation)-and projecting its unconscious content upon others-identifying with it too little" (32). Walker also crystallizes Jung's theory of inflation beautifully in his analysis of Euripides' The Bacchae. Despite his people's worship of the god Dionysos, who has recently returned to Thebes, King Pentheus rejects the trickster god of wine and sexual ecstasy. He is subsequently destroyed due to his under-identification with and repression of this god, a manifestation of the shadow archetype. Pentheus' own mother murders him after she is swept up into a group of radical, charismatic devotees to Dionysos known as the Maenads, women who have lost their individual identities to the god and act out their possession in ecstatic, violent frenzy. In Jungian terms, they have become unconscious agents of the archetype by their over-identification with and possession by it (inflation). Walker concludes that the two old men, Cadmus and Teiresius, are the only ones who are able to integrate some of the Dionysian frenzy without becoming possessed (103). From this literary example, Walker moves to historical examples of inflation, including the ironic example of Jung's own struggle with the rising mass movement of German fascism. Walker's extended treatment of Jung's analysis of the Wotan myth (1936) does much to clarify Jung's struggle to understand the rise of Nazism. In 1936, Walker explains, Jung was unsure of what to make of the mass movement of a culture inflated with an archetype. He was equally unsure of the consequences of Germany's inflation with the Wotan myth, the myth of the storm god which Jung saw as having positive as well as negative value. Walker concludes that Jung in 1936 was at best suspicious of German fascism: "Jung's psychological individualism was allied with a profound distrust of groups and of group mentalities" (106). On the other hand, he clearly does not absolve Jung of responsibility: "Whether from political naivete or lack of foresight, Jung 'slipped up,' as he himself admits, in his early assessment of Nazi Germany" (109). Our guide is to be commended for an honest and candid critique of Jung's response to fascism at this time. He compensates for the one-sided view of Jung as a Nazi sympathizer (presented in some recent books on Jung) by providing a balanced explanation of Jung's struggle with Nazism.

The political consequences of the activation of a myth may indeed be dire, as Walker illustrates in his analysis of the "Rushdie Affair." Ironically, Salman Rushdie, inflated by the constellated archetype of the playful puer aeternus (eternal boy) in his magical realist experimentation in The Satanic Verses, found himself drawn into an archetypal field in which the rigid and devouring senex (mean old man) was also activated in the guise of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Perhaps, Walker notes in his epilogue, the more work a culture does on its collective shadow projection the better its chances to recognize and withdraw that projection before dire consequences result. These comments seem especially poignant today, and indeed Jungians have recently published articles and books on shadow projection as it relates to 9/11, tensions in the Middle East, etc. Shadow projection might even explain the human tendency to scapegoat, an idea with which Walker challenges his readers through his analysis of America's "War on Drugs" (166).

The special value of Steven Walker's book is his recognition of the role of myth in Jung's core theory of individuation-i.e., the freeing of the individual from the impulsive drives of the collective unconscious: "As narrative, myth may even be said to be superior to conceptual modes of thought, in that its lively stories reflect a more faithful image of the archetypal realm, of the 'living processes of the psyche'" (17). According to Walker, it was Jung's ability to think mythologically (to personify what he discovered buried in the psyche) that distinguished his thinking from those who used abstract scientific concepts as their frame of reference when describing the psyche. For Jung, image is the basis of the psyche and not the word or the concept. And Walker even explains the process by which the archetypal image becomes articulated in a narrative myth (a process that Jung himself skipped over in one of his characteristic intuitive leaps):

It is thus 'creative fantasy'-the human imagination-that creates myths out of archetypal images. It is through a process of conscious, imaginative elaboration that spontaneously generated archetypal images become the specific culturally determined figures of mythology. (19)

Hence, Walker makes it clear that Jung's gift to modern humanity is his view of mythology as the tool that allows us to see the archetypes at work and become more aware of their influence, lest, unaware of them, we feel compelled to act them out in spite of ourselves.

But Walker acknowledges that a culture's myths could also characterize an improper, potentially damaging attitude toward the archetypes. He admits that a culture's myths may sometimes obscure its path to psychic wholeness by promoting reductive justifications of its already one-sided conscious attitude. In one example, he discusses the manifestation of the puer aeternus (archetype of the eternal youth) in twentieth century American presidents, both praised for their youthful innovation and criticized for their childish irresponsibility (154-155). Of particular value here is Walker's recognition of Joseph Henderson's theory of a cultural unconscious, which filters and transforms the archetypes, determining a culture's particular mythic rendering of and use (or misuse) of the archetypal force. This articulation of the archetypes by a cultural unconscious explains how cultures come to live out political myths. As an example of modern culture's inflation with the destructive aspects of the godhead, Walker points to Oppenheimer's spontaneous quoting from the Bhagavad Gita of Krishna in his terrible aspect-"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds"-on the occasion of the first test of a nuclear bomb. Walker emphasizes that moderns are especially vulnerable to such "political myths," and he cites as examples the Marxist apocalyptic myth of a "Golden Age of socioeconomic equality" once capitalism was overthrown (171) and the American myth of the Individual, which surreptitiously isolates people and inspires the abuse of natural resources (172).

Nevertheless, Walker explains, in the right hands myths can also help a culture reflect on and withdraw its projections. Here, the artist may play a crucial role, for his work may compensate for his culture's conscious, one-sided socio-political development. To Jung's view of Joyce's Ulysses as compensation (with its emotional detachment) for the emotionalism driving the nationalism of WWI Europe and Goethe's Gretchen as illustrating the lost moral clarity of Faustian WWII Germany, Walker adds his own analysis of Ovid, who, with his playful and bawdy love tales in Metamorphoses, compensated for the power-driven, one-sided military machine that was Augustan Rome. Walker's analyses of these literary works allow him to examine the authors as vehicles for the archetypes that influenced or possessed them-myth bringers or shamans for their societies. Hence, we see how the individual creative ego wrestles with the archetypes to create art, and in the process articulates the myths that the culture needs to restore its balance.

Overall, Jung's complex theory of myth and its relevance for understanding the psychology of mass movements are made accessible to readers from diverse disciplines through Walker's insightful explanations and economical writing style. The clarity of the book may also be attributed to Walker's wise choice of Jung's later letters, seminars, and autobiography for his primary sources-writings frequently in English rather than (as in his books) German in which Jung crystallized the theories that he had spent volumes developing in the Collected Works. The book includes an index and selected annotated bibliography, making it a valuable reference, and it has succeeded in field tests as a central text for seminars in World Literature and Mythology in Literature, courses that dealt with works from cultures around the world. Undoubtedly, Steven Walker's book would serve equally well for courses in other disciplines, especially for interdisciplinary courses and capstone courses, and its relevance cannot be overestimated given the powerful influence and destructive potential of today's mass movements.


© Mathew V. Spano 2003
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Originally published in the May issue of Philosophy and Social Action, an interdisciplinary international journal edited by the collective of Concerned Philosophers and Scientists for Social action and published out of Dehradun, India.

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Works Cited

Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. New York: Harper and Row, 1951.

Sharma, Dhirendra. "The Messianic Divine Mission?" Philosophy and Social Action. 29.1 (2003): 3-8.

Walker, Steven. Jung and the Jungians on Myth. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.