Does Myth (Still) Have A Function In Jungian Studies? Modernity, Metaphor, and Psycho-Mythology

The following article by Michael Vannoy Adams is a paper presented at the "Psyche and Imagination" conference of the International Association for Jungian Studies at the University of Greenwich, London, July 7, 2006.

One of the most important novelists of the twentieth century declares that he has no interest in Freudians. "Let the credulous and vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts," Vladimir Nabokov says. "I really do not care" (1973: 66). Jungians may not apply old Greek myths to their private parts as Freudians so notoriously do, but they do apply old myths - among them, Greek myths - in an attempt to cure mental woes. Jungians continue to believe that myth has a function.

If I did not believe that myth still has a function, I would never have written my book The Mythological Unconscious (Adams 2001), and I would never have written the chapter "Mythological Knowledge: Just How Important Is It in Jungian (and Freudian) Analysis?" in my book The Fantasy Principle: Psychoanalysis of the Imagination (Adams 2004). Nor would I continue to teach my courses "Psychoanalyzing Greek and Roman Mythology" and "Psychoanalyzing Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Mythology" at the New School in New York. Not only Jung but also Jungians like James Hillman - and not only Freud and Freudians like Wilfred Bion - also believe that myth has a function. What, however, is that function?

In a book that includes the word "functions" in the subtitle, G.S. Kirk criticizes the proposition that "all myths are about gods" (1970: 9). For example, he says that "the heroes, who play so large a part in Greek myths, are obviously not gods" (1970: 10). I would say that most, if not all, myths are about gods. Even when myths are about heroes, like that favorite Freudian hero Oedipus, they are about those heroes in relation to gods. Kirk notes that myth has many functions. For Jung and Jungians, the basic function of myth is psychological.

Recently, one Jungian, Wolfgang Giegerich, has argued that, at this stage in the history of consciousness, myth no longer has any psychological function. Giegerich asserts that it is a fallacy to resort to "any ancient mythological figures" in an attempt to account for the modern situation. Ancient mythological figures, he contends, "do not suffice." They are insufficient because, he says, "even though they may display certain formal similarities" to the modern situation, "they are incommensurable" with it (1999: 175).

In effect, Giegerich declares the Jungian method of mythological amplification to be invalid. Amplification is a comparative method. It compares images from the modern psyche to images from other sources - among them, ancient myths - in an effort to identify significant similarities, or parallels. Giegerich, however, maintains that the modern psychological situation is utterly without precedent, without parallel. It is so radically different - or, as he says, so logically different - from the ancient mythological situation that any similarity is merely formal and thus insignificant. Giegerich says that the modern situation has "fundamentally broken with myth as such, that is, with the entire level of consciousness on which truly mythic experience was feasible." The modern situation has "not broken with this or that myth, nor with all myths," he says, but with what "made myths possible in the first place" (1999: 175).

In contrast to Giegerich, who posits a discontinuity between the ancient situation and the modern situation, Jung emphasizes what he calls "the higher continuity of history" (1911-12/1952 para. 1). For example, Freud demonstrates that an ancient myth, the Oedipus myth, continues to exist in the modern psyche as the Oedipus complex. As a result, Jung says, "the gulf that separates our age from antiquity is bridged over, and we realize that Oedipus is still alive for us." This realization, he says, establishes "an identity of fundamental human conflicts" that are "independent of time and place" and refutes the notion that modern people are "different" from (or "better") than ancient people. Jung says that "an indissoluble link binds us to the men of antiquity" (1911-12/1952, para. 1). Oedipus is in ancient Thebes, and Oedipus is in modern New York. "The latest incarnation of Oedipus," Joseph Campbell notes, is standing "this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change" (1968: 4). Of course, the modern Oedipus is simultaneously talking on a cellular phone and listening to a portable music player, but, to the extent that he is like the ancient Oedipus, he is still presumably motivated to commit patricide and incest: what Herman Melville calls "the two most horrible crimes" (1971: 351).

Giegerich historicizes ancient mythology and, in the process, demythologizes modern psychology. Ancient mythological figures, he says, are inadequate to the modern situation precisely because they are ancient - that is, anachronistic. In the modern situation, they are obsolete and, as a result, irrelevant. What is the "modern situation?" As Giegerich defines it, it is, in the history of consciousness, the stage of the computer, Internet, cyberspace, and virtual reality. For Giegerich, the modern psychological situation is so technological that it is post-mythological. Jung believes that the more things change, the more they remain the same. In contrast, Giegerich is what I would call a "situationist." He believes that the situation - something technological - has changed so much that nothing mythological remains the same or significantly similar.

Giegerich is a formidable, impressively erudite critic of Jungian psychology. If there is any "post-Jungian," it is Giegerich. Does, however, the digital technology of the computer, Internet, cyberspace, and virtual reality render mythological amplification - which as a comparative method is an analog technology - obsolete and irrelevant? I, too, have criticized amplification. I have advocated an expansive redefinition of amplification to include, in addition to the comparative method, what I call a "contrastive method" (Adams 2004: 62-3). By this redefinition, amplification would not only compare images in order to identify significant similarities but would also contrast images in order to identify significant differences. I have not, however, proposed that Jungians discard mythological amplification as a method.

Mythological amplification is not, of course, the only Jungian method. Mythology is not absolutely indispensable to Jungian psychology. A Jungian might still be a Jungian and not practice mythological amplification. For example, Michael Fordham says that he "never used amplification" as insistently as some Jungians do and "largely eliminated it" as a method (1993: 74). Active imagination is also a Jungian method, and it does not entail any recourse to mythology. "No myths," Sam Harris says, "need to be embraced to commune with the profundity of our experience" (2004: 227). I agree with Harris that myths are not, in that sense, experientially necessary. They may, however, still be psychologically valuable, for certain dreams, fantasies, and experiences of modern people are conspicuously (and profoundly) similar to the myths of ancient people, as Jungians continue to demonstrate - and, contrary to what Giegerich says, those modern dreams, fantasies, and experiences are similar not only in form but also in content to ancient myths.

Sophia Heller, who acknowledges the influence of Giegerich, does not just assert, as Harris does, that myths are unnecessary. She contends that myth is "absent" in the modern (or postmodern) situation. Heller says that "myths today are studied rather than lived." Myth still has a function, she affirms, but that function is now "critical rather than existential" (2006: 2). In contrast to Heller, I would say that myth is not absent but present, although it is present in a way functionally different from the way it was previously present and that Jungians study myth in order to demonstrate how contemporary people continue to live myth - or, more precisely, to demonstrate how myth continues to live in (the psyche of) contemporary people.

For Giegerich, mythological amplification is not only a nostalgic, sentimental exercise but also an abusive method. In this respect, he criticizes Jungians who attempt, for example, "to reclaim Aphrodite for modern life experience." He says that this reclamation project is "a terrible abuse of poor Aphrodite, who, being dead, has no way to defend herself against this abuse." How, he wonders, can Jungians "seriously want to recognize Aphrodite in, or find her relevant to," the sense of the beautiful, erotic, or sexual in modern fantasy and behavior, when the modern situation has so moralistically distorted and so commercially appropriated and exploited that sense (1999: 181)?

Giegerich does not mention Ginette Paris, but she, more eloquently than any other Jungian, reclaims Aphrodite for modern life experience. Paris is not naive. She, too, notes how the moralistic distortion and commercial appropriation and exploitation of the beautiful, erotic, or sexual in the modern situation abuse Aphrodite, but when Paris practices mythological amplification, she does not abuse Aphrodite. She describes how Aphrodite is alive and well in the modern psyche and is still relevant to the modern situation (1986). For example, she recounts an anecdote in which Aphrodite manifested to a modern young woman. On a spring day, the young woman saw a pair of sexy sandals in a store window, and, although the sandals were extremely expensive, she impulsively bought them. The young woman called the impulse "spring fever." What impelled her, she remarked, was "the season for love." Paris says that if the young woman had been a Jungian, "she would probably have said: 'Here comes Aphrodite.'" The young woman, Paris notes, "didn't know Greek mythology and didn't identify Aphrodite by her Greek name." As Paris says, the young woman did not call her "Aphrodite" but called her, equivalently, "the season for love" (1997: 88).

Aphrodite also manifests to modern young men. For example, a young man who entered analysis with me was in a marriage with a woman who he acknowledged was potentially - but only occasionally actually - an Aphrodite. What had attracted him to her was a "love at first sight" moment when had seen just how much an Aphrodite she might be. "When I saw her, I thought here's this potentially beautiful girl with a pretty face and figure," he said. "I thought she just needs to learn a few of the arts of beauty - then she'll be 'perfect.'" Actually to be an Aphrodite was, for his wife, an exertion. With effort, she could adopt the aesthetic style of an Aphrodite, but she did not often do so. On one occasion, she had surprised and pleased him immensely with an exhibition of initiative. "She did the whole Aphrodite thing on her own," he said. "I thought: 'Oh, so you can do it too!'' His wife had returned from a weekend away, and after bathing herself and perfuming herself, she had made herself up and dressed herself up. They had gone out to a restaurant for dinner and then come back to the apartment for a movie. "We watched Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite," the young man said with an ironic laugh, "and then we had great sex." Such experiences were, however, an exception to the rule. To the young man, his wife left something very much to be desired. "The search for Aphrodite is part of my psyche," he said. "That doesn't mean that my wife doesn't have those qualities that I'm looking for." It was just that she did not often embody them. As a result, the young man was in a real quandary. "I really like feminine women, and when I encounter other women who are Aphrodites, something is really stirred up inside me," he said. "The difficulty has been not to let the stirrings inside me happen, because I'm married - but I'm not getting what I need out of my marriage." One day on the way to analysis, he had looked in a store window. "I saw all these women's magazines - the photos on the covers of the magazines," he said. "I thought: 'Oh, there she is! There's Aphrodite. I'm being surrounded by her all the time.'" The previous night, he had worked a job at a social event. "Quite a few of the women there were Aphrodites," he said. "It's not that my wife doesn't have any Aphrodite about her, but they - other women - have more, and it's something that I'm not getting enough of."

In one aspect, Aphrodite is in love with Adonis. Like Aphrodite, Adonis is "beautiful." He dies, however, before Aphrodite can "truly possess him." At his death, Adonis metamorphoses into a flower, his blood transforms into "red anemones" (Kerenyi 1951: 76). The young man who entered analysis with me said: "I identify with Adonis." Now, however, as he became older, he was ambivalent about the identification with Adonis, who, he noted, "dies young." He elaborated:

Being identified with Adonis is a difficult thing for me to acknowledge about myself. When I was younger, I didn't feel it was difficult. The Adonis thing worked in the past but doesn't work so well now. Adonis doesn't have to try that hard. He gets petulant when his needs aren't met: "Why aren't they being met? What's going on? Where are the Aphrodites?" I was really used to getting female attention. I took it for granted. I didn't have to try that hard to get attention. Now I'm getting older, but I still expect girls just to come to me. Of course, it can still happen once in a while. I still look young. If I see a girl on the subway and she's responding to how I look, I think to myself: "I know what to do with that now." If the Adonis thing continues much longer, however, it will come across as strange - and then, eventually, as insane. I don't think that will happen to me, because I don't identify solely with Adonis. The Adonis thing is only one of the parts of me, but it has to do with how I initially approach women. If you try to be Adonis past a certain point, women go: "Huh?" That might have been enough when I was younger. Then all the other stuff is still 'potential,' and girls can read that potential into you - they can project all that onto you. If you show a little "intellectual" stuff, girls think: "He'll become somebody." But if you don't work at it, you get older, and it's no longer potential. Adonis turns into a flower. Women say: "What are you going to do with that? It's just a flower. You were just a flower all along? What a shame!"

He realized, with chagrin, that Adonis is a "pretty boy" who dies before Aphrodite can love him as a man - as if Adonis is always potential, never actual, as if Adonis has a time limit, an expiration date at which he prematurely perishes. From a Jungian perspective, Adonis is an image of the puer aeternus - who stays, Robert A. Segal notes, "an adolescent for life" (1999: 108). As Segal succinctly says: "He simply never grows up" (1999: 109). Such individuals are, Hillman says, "only flower-people," who remain "possibility and promise only" (1979b: 27).

Among mythologies, Greek mythology is exceptional, Paul Friedrich asserts, "because of the number and stature of its female deities, so diverse in their personal, moral, and aesthetic characteristics, and for what it says about 'the feminine'" (1978: 1). As the love goddess, Aphrodite is much more, he notes, than a mere "fun girl" (1978: 2). What interest Friedrich are "both the universal and the contemporary American meanings of Aphrodite, notably as these bear on our understanding of the psychology of women" (1978: 4). No other mythology, he contends, "is richer in archetypes, implicit characterology, insight into the human psyche," than Greek mythology (1978: 7). In this respect, he says that Aphrodite is one of the "emotional complexes," the "one including sex and sensuousness" (1978: 8). I would merely add that, in spite of what Giegerich says, the Aphrodite complex continues to be a vitally decisive factor in the psychology of both modern women and modern men. As Jean Shinoda Bolen says, "The Aphrodite archetype creates a personal charisma - a magnetism or electricity - that, combined with physical attributes, makes a woman 'an Aphrodite'" (1984: 243). Paris says: "The woman who has the qualities of Aphrodite knows how to move, breathe, and vibrate, and is capable of generating as well as receiving high-intensity sexual energy" (1986: 45).

There is no "Aphroditic Personality Disorder" in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but if, as Jung says, "The gods have become diseases" (1929: para. 54), there well could be. For example, a psychiatric dictionary defines "aphrodisia" as sexual excitation and "aphrodisiomania" as excessive (by implication, pathological) sexual excitation (Hinsie and Shatzky 1940: 44-5). There is an intimate association between Aphrodite and the penis. After Ouranos is castrated by Kronos and the genitals are cast into the sea, Aphrodite is born from the white foam (aphros) and named after it. It is apt, Paris emphasizes, that "intellectual Athena" is born from her father's head and "sexy Aphrodite is born from her father's genitals" (1986: 15). Aphrodite is the mother not only of Eros but also of Priapos, who is "excessively phallic" (Kerenyi 1951: 176) - most graphically (or pornographically) in the notorious mural from Pompeii where Priapos weighs down the scales with the prodigiously disproportionate, heavy organ (Thorn 1990: 78). This enormity, which Aphrodite considers a deformity, is, indeed, a membrum virile, which implies, Hillman says, "vulgar as it may seem to those who cling to prissy pretty sex, every hard-on is mothered by Aphrodite" (1995: 44). The condition of "priapism" is a persistent erection of the penis (Hinsie and Shatsky 1940: 429).

Why not just say "love" rather than "Aphrodite?" Because, I would emphasize, "love" is a concept, "Aphrodite" an image. Concepts are abstract generalizations, in contrast to images, which are concrete particularizations. Images are preferable to concepts because they possess quite distinctive qualities that endow them with vitality. In this respect, Jung declares that, in contrast to concepts, "images are life" (1955: para. 226). Aphrodite may be the "goddess of love," but she is not the goddess of love in general. "We cannot," Hillman says, "place all love at Aphrodite's altar" (1972: 66). There are many varieties of love, not just one. Aphrodite is the goddess of a specific variety of love - in particular, sexual and sensual love, which is impulsive, even compulsive.

For example, the Aphrodite variety of love is not the "moral" love of fidelity in marriage. That is the Hera variety of love. The numerous infidelities of Zeus offend the Hera variety of love. From that perspective, the Aphrodite variety of love is amoral, even "immoral." In one aspect, Aphrodite is the goddess of affairs. With Ares, Aphrodite is unfaithful in marriage to Hephaistos. Helios reports the adultery, and Hephaistos, god of the smithy, then forges a net of invisible chains that he secretly attaches to the bed. After sex, Ares and Aphrodite sleep, and when they awake, they are stark naked and snared. Hephaistos surprises them and then summons all the gods and goddesses to witness Ares and Aphrodite in flagrante delicto. The goddesses modestly demur, but the gods lewdly gather for a laugh. Apollo jokes that surely Hermes would not object if he, rather than Ares, were in that net with Aphrodite, and Hermes exclaims that he would not, even if the chains were "three times as strong!" (Kerenyi 1951: 74). When, in 1910, the 34-year-old Jung says to the 53-year-old Freud, "The prerequisite for a good marriage, it seems to me, is the license to be unfaithful" (Freud and Jung 1974: 289), he attempts, in effect, to reconcile the Hera variety of love with the Aphrodite variety of love.

Many modern people are not at all psychological. They remain strictly and exclusively mythological. That is, like ancient people, they still believe that gods exist, or at least that God with a capital "G" exists, quite literally, in a supernatural dimension - in spite of the fact that, as Harris says, "there is no more evidence to justify a belief in the literal existence of Yahweh" than, for example, "Zeus" (2004: 16). Giegerich says that in the modern situation it is no longer feasible for people to have what he calls "truly mythic experience." On the contrary, many modern people have the same experience of myth as ancient people. These people are "modern" only in the sense that they are in the modern situation. They do not have modern consciousness. They are "ancient" people in the modern situation. Like ancient people, they have truly mythic experience. Of course, these ancient people in the modern situation are, as Harris notes, quite selective in what qualifies as truly mythic experience. For example, they arbitrarily believe in "God," or Yahweh, but not in Zeus. "Imagine," Harris says, "President Bush addressing the National Prayer Breakfast in these terms: 'Behind all of life and all history there is a dedication and a purpose set by the hand of a just and faithful Zeus'" (2004: 46-7). Or, I might say, imagine President Clinton interviewing an intern in the Oval Office of the White House and wearing a W.W.Z.D. - "What would Zeus do?" - bracelet. What, then, would Hera - I mean, Hillary - do? Is not this image hilarious?

It is the genius of Jung to argue that "gods" exist, but only metaphorically and only in a natural dimension. That natural dimension is the psyche. "All deities," William Blake says, "reside in the human breast" (1976: 153) - or, as Jung says, in the psyche. From this perspective, the gods are dead, but the "gods" are alive and well - or, I would say, the literal is dead, but the metaphorical is alive and well. As Hillman provocatively says, "Nothing is literal; all is metaphor" (1975: 175). The "gods" continue to "exist," as they always have, in the psyche. In this respect, to be psychological is to be metaphorical. It is to realize, once and for all, that the "gods" are metaphors - personifications (or deifications) in the psyche. There is still "divine intervention," but now it is, as Jung says, psychic compensation.

Some people in the modern situation have modern consciousness. They do not have what Giegerich calls "truly mythic experience" but, like Jung, they have psychic experience of myth. As they experience myth, it is a projection of the psyche. Jungians psychologize the experience of myth. They deliteralize the gods, metaphorize them. They punctuate the "gods" in quotation marks. Rhetorically, they regard ancient mythological figures figuratively. The decisive difference between people with modern consciousness - among them, Jungians - and people with ancient consciousness is a capacity for metaphor.

Harris says that "it does not seem out of place to wonder whether the myths that saturate our discourse will wind up killing many of us" (2004: 47). As Harris says, "That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen" (2004: 129). What is dangerous, even deadly, I would argue, is not myths as such but an incapacity for metaphor in relation to myths. When people in the modern situation take myths literally rather than metaphorically, they have an all too convenient excuse to take lives in the name of the gods.

"Mythology is a psychology of antiquity," Hillman says. "Psychology is a mythology of modernity" (1979a: 23). Jung says that the psyche is intrinsically mythopoeic. The psyche, he says, spontaneously projects myths - or produces modern dreams, fantasies, and experiences similar to ancient myths. Freud employs a special term for this process: "Psycho-mythology" (1985: 286). In this respect, Jungians are neither exclusively mythological nor exclusively psychological but are inclusively "psycho-mythological." Jungian psychology is not a "psychology" in the conventional sense but a "psycho-mythology."


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