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What Is an Archetype, Anyway?

December 29, 2018

Or at least what do I mean by that?

I.  Let’s have some quick material to work with, using two things, presented as bouquets of verbal details and images (some within metaphor or symbol).

The baby’s first breath, the Breath of Life, practice our breathing, “I can’t breathe!,” she has stopped breathing, baby’s breath (the flower). 

Menstrual blood, “the blood of Christ,” a bloody Mary, “There was blood everywhere.  We waded knee-deep in blood.” “Out, out, damned spot,” “bloody hell,” blood pressure.

Each of these things, breath, blood, like every other thing, has the potential to be an image, and furthermore to be an archetypal image, within a life context in which an archetypal pattern of imagining is activated in a brain.

There are not archetypes without things and our imagination of things.  “No ideas but in things,” as Williams put it.  Archetypes are universal because things are universal and because the human brain is universal in its structure and behavior.  They are universal patterns of the brain’s processing (simultaneously conscious and unconscious), trying to make use of, and to make meaning of, tangible being—including its ideas about that.

Most of the time, in our conscious awareness, breath and blood, for instance, are “just things” (with an interesting difference between breathing and bleeding—open or closed systems).  For quick illustration, I picked intrinsically important things, vital, indeed potentially archetypal images ofvitality.   But very ordinary things (a grain of sand, a cockroach) can supply material for images of archetypes, when they carry the emotive burden of our (mostly unconscious) humanness, in an emotionally supercharged imagination and expression of life.  The source of their energy is the emotions; and as Pound pointed out, images are supercharged with emotion, as imaginative integrations into instant re-velation and re-cognition.

Here I have verbally represented the things, some as images, some only details, in a mechanical way in an artificial context. But I hope that by calling the groupings “bouquets,” picked flowers arranged and presented for beauty, I have managed to hint at what could be, in an organic context of a life, a species-wide pattern of primal imagining, as the species and a person try to make sense of their being, using every mental ability that they’ve got.

Well it’s complex; but this page is an attempt to make the terms/concepts “archetype,” and “archetypal image” quickly available to the plot (to the best of my ability to understand them, especially re. Jung and Hillman [*]):

II. By “archetype” I mean a “ruling” (or we might say “executive,” like the brain’s executive function) pattern in our imagining of life. That is the crux of it

It is important to understand “imagination” in the Coleridgean sense of a primary, holistic mode of mentality that synthesizes sensation, emotion, feeling, and reason, and that directs the brain in creative activity—procreative, recreative, artistic; furthermore keeping in mind that the brain functions as an integrated part of the whole human organism of awareness and response, as we strive to maintain homeostasis.  [**]

We know life as what we imagine it to be.  Luckily (usefully), our imagining of life is neither chaotic nor unique.  It is a patterned activity, both unconscious and conscious, along neural pathways that have been established during the brain’s evolutionary experiences.  Thus the archetypes are evolving—they are changing, like everything else in being (I imagine).

Archetypes are natural phenomena. These paths of brain activity have been established by human experience during, what? 3 million years of interaction with the environment, including some large number of most recent years spent in imaginativeinteraction. They don’t all have to be that old, but they are evolved, inherited, physical traits of the brain.  [***]  These imaginations are shared by a wide swath of humanity (it doesn’t have to be 100% universal—variations can be local; let’s not get hung up on that).

Archetypes are things(no need to get esoteric about it—messing with an archetype can be like stepping on a poisonous snake; waking to an archetype can be like greeting a summer dawn).  Because they are human things, they are among the most powerful forces in nature.  (Wherever there is a human, there are archetypes. They have walked on the moon; and if we colonize Mars, we’ll plant them there. There’s no escaping us.)

Thus the archetypes are historical and their material is existential.  I.e. (for humans, at least—giving a nod to what Jung called “the god archetype”), things preceded consciousness, being precedes essence.

III. “Images” are made of things, in re-presentation (Hillman on the “re,” and Damasio on emotions/feelings).  An “archetypal image” is the conscious vehicle of expression, verbal or nonverbal (e.g. a gesture by a dancer) of an archetype.  One might or might not realize that that is what it is.  

Not every image—e.g. in a poem or an advertisement—is archetypal, but every conscious archetypal act of imagination, reflected upon or not, takes the form of an image.

The sensory thing that is the material of the image is rendered psychological.  It is valorized, both unconsciously by the psychological importance (sometimes urgency) of the imaginal pattern, and consciously by the emotional context.  It can achieve remarkable power by fusing unconscious and conscious perception and responsiveness.  As image, the thing, thus imagined, takes on the content and power of ancient mental experiences of life and death, such as we associate with, for instance, the messages of the amygdala or the content of the hippocampus (see Dr. Ford’s testimony, at the Senate hearing, re. traumatic memory, as well as PTSD generally). 

Here’s a page about “image,” and here’s one about the psychological power of images. (I’m thinking, donc, that raw experience that engages unconscious operators such as the amygdala and hippocampus, including a powerful film, or a pr*sidential lie or nomination, also engages unconscious patterns of imagination, with the accompanying conscious content; again, the archetypes are physical and emotive things.)I

IV.  As major influences on, actions by, and descriptors of, humanness, archs drive and pattern individual and species interaction with the natural world, including oneself and other humans.  They are survival tools, of the species and of each individual; but they are larger and more powerful than any individual, or group (even religious).  I’m thinking that maybe they have become more powerful than even the species (granting that without the species they don’t exist—and what a relief that would be (?)).  

However, their power is sneaky, because they exist mainly in our unconsciousmental activity, where we don’t directly know what’s going on (we can’t know mental content of which we are not conscious—but we do have evidence that there is such). (Jung called this unconscious content a “shadow,” by which he meant that it is like something in a shadow, rather than in the light, so we can’t perceive it distinctly.)  Indeed their “negative” (note: as natural forces they are not good or bad, they just are; they be, they do their thing) unconscious power, i.e. their ability to cause conscious distortion, disorientation, dislocation, and pain, depends on our not being aware of them.  But their unknown, unconscious activity alsois “positive,” with wonderful potential to be tapped by awareness through increased reflective consciousness of them.  We can “shine a light” on the shadowy.  

When we are in the grip of an arch that threatens our equilibrium, even our homeostasis, we do become very irrational (and vulnerable to unregulated unconscious messages such as those from the amygdala). Yet “rational” is not the opposite or antidote to “archetypal,” because if we over-intellectualize and over-analyze, to try to gain control, we are being unreflective.  Reason alone will not help us—in fact it will over-compensate and over-control, as it comes under the grip of its own wild arch.  We are bright and we are striving with all our learnéd might, but we are not being reflective.

We don’t know what is happening to us.  We can’t see what we’ve become.  We’ve been seduced by an arch.  We fall in love with our abductor, a trickster.  But the more we try to please it, the weaker we become and the stronger it grows.  

I’ve been there.

V.  Archetypes are experiential.  Consciously, we experience them unreflectively or reflectively, as emotive influences on our mental life, both personal and social.  They affect our interpretations, evaluations, and responses.  When we are unreflective and they are emotionally overdetermined, they can be intensely determinative, both privately and publicly.  Entire societies and cultures can experience an archetype or complex of archetypes, especially within mythic narratives.  Such a narrative can unite masses of emotionally overdetermined individuals into highly determined, emotional conflagrations.  Entire hives can be moved to kill and die in order to honor and aggrandize their archetypal mythic identity image, whether positive or negative. [****]

Such experience is unreflective consciousness. But we can also experience archs reflectively, as images and motifs in nature and art, as well as in dreams, mythology, religious activity, propaganda, and daily reflection.

When an archetype is being consciously enacted unreflectively, we are expressing it emotively (or in a sense it is expressing itself as us) and imaginatively, often with great emotive power, including distortion, disorientation, dislocation, and pain.  We experience it reflectively when we become aware of it, expressively, by imagining it as the psychological image that it is.

VI. So by cultivating consciousness, including mindfulness, we can bring an arch into appropriate perspective and degree of power, so that it functions appropriately, as a regulated, regulating, and creative channel of energy and meaning (and homeostasis).  It steps back into its rightful position among the others, as in the crowd of gods on Mt. Olympus.  Its positive power is released and enhanced by our integrative energies of accurate, reflective awareness.  That’s when our imagination is healthy.

At that point, we can achieve highly conscious creative archetypal activity, such as healing, love, and art (although even then, the strongest aesthetic achievements are not “thought up” or rationally constructed, as if the artist has a dictionary of archetypes—I’ll put some breathing here, a spot of blood there, et voilà, un chef d’oeuvre; rather, we consciously give ourselves to the unconscious, archetypal “muse,” and she takes us to be her wild and lawful partner in beauty).

Voilà the healthiest thing is to experience the archs reflectively.  But sometimes this requires a return to health, countering the overwhelming emotional power of an archetype gone rogue, by re-imagining, re-visioning, re-imaging what seems to be raw life, objective fact (present, or in memory), as the psychological, archetypal image that it was, all along.  Sometimes that requires the help of a psychotherapist or psychological counselor.  Yep, been there too.

And in fact, re-flective imaginative awareness always is psychotherapeutic, because it gives imaginative—creative and re-creative—attention to body and to soul.

So much imaginative awareness can happen, and should, in our ordinary, daily, reflective imagination of the life going on around us and within us.  

If we don’t get that, we fall into the grip of the archetypes, becoming less and less conscious, while more and more obsessively, but sickly, imaginative.  We identify with, and act outan archetype (or more than one).  Then we are in danger of becoming a Trompf.  Bloody hell.

Let’s make a practice of our breathing.


*I’ve misplaced my Hillman, Archetypal Psychology, so I can’t review it.  If I find it, review might produce some revision of this page.  ** Surely neurological science is going to tell us much more about the physiology of the imagination.  ***In fact, could it be that, although the process that resulted in the archs began millions of yrs ago, the patterns themselves didn’t begin to be laid down in the brain until roughly 100K yrs ago?  That wouldn’t surprise me.  It may be that they are actually quite modern. I’m thinking, for instance, of my sense of contemporaneous humanity in certain experiences of 40-50K yr old cave paintings, and recent flamenco dancing and singing.  Sometimes just a tiny gesture can take us way back. ****To authoritarian personalities aspiring to dictatorship, it is important to keep us unreflective, even semi-unconscious, nulling us, by keeping us in denial, for instance by declaring fact to be fake.  They’re demonically intuitive that way (and they hire pros).  Then we are vulnerable to their symbolic manipulation of arch images, with all that power.]

[Application to Trompf (dear reader, I bet you can figure that one out as well as I can, the things, images, impact; still, the texture of the novel needs that episode). More important, I’m trying to think through the matter of sexual assault and archetypal imagination, which I think will be one of the most important, difficult (I’m not likely to get it right), and painful, pages in the book. You might not want to read it, dear reader. You may well not “need” to read it.

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