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In the Service of Creative Being

Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes“And he turns his mind to unknown arts.”Metamorphoses (Ovid, Book VIII, l. 188)

As this pandemic rages on, exposing the structural flaws of an economic system bent on profit-making over the lives of ordinary people, we are compelled to turn our minds inward and to step up to the threshold where the doors of the collective unconscious begin to open up the mystery of our own souls.

In a sense, under the present pandemic conditions, the general population has been delivered willy-nilly into the underground of the collective psyche, those secret landscapes of the soul where artists have already learned to make their home. In this interior place of the night of the soul, a journey through the many infernos of our psychic existence, we sail over the waters of the unconscious mind at the bounds of knowability. Although bound to make us feel uncomfortable, it is here where we come face to face with the unknown, the other in ourselves. At the same time we also come to the source of creative being itself as the eternal formation and transformation of the entire symbolic order of the human spirit. This is the place of self-creation for the archetypal mind that has been caught in the smithy of the self, what alchemists termed the vas bene clausum (well-sealed vessel).

As we get used to our own well-sealed spaces, the somber cloud of this deadly pandemic, together with the socio-political upheavals of our times, have worked to drive everybody into their own inner caves, unwittingly called to become artists of some kind, to improvise with our material conditions on the canvas of the self. We are called to do this not only to stay afloat but also, somehow, to thrive within the cracks of a quaking system. Can such a thing be done without getting in touch with the archetypal well-springs of human creativity?

Joseph Campbell alludes to the archetypal dimension of creative being whenever he points to the psychological foundations of myth. It is here, on the archetypal ground of the human psyche, that Campbell finds the encompassing dimension of myth which underlies the entire complex of mythic functions:

The first function served by a traditional mythology, I would term, then, the mystical, or metaphysical, the second, the cosmological, and the third, the sociological. The fourth, which lies at the root of all three as their base and final support, is the psychological: that, namely, of shaping individuals to the aims and ideals of their various social groups, bearing them on from birth to death through the course of a human life. And whereas the cosmological and sociological orders have varied greatly over the centuries and in various quarters of the globe, there have nevertheless been certain irreducible psychological problems inherent in the very biology of our species, which have remained constant, and have, consequently, so tended to control and structure the myths and rites in their service that, in spite of all the differences that have been recognized, analyzed, and stressed by sociologists and historians, there run through the myths of all mankind the common strains of a single symphony of the soul.(Mythic Dimension: Selected essays 1959-1987, p. 221)

One wonders if, in describing the psychological ground, Campbell had in mind one of the central axioms of Medieval Alchemy as formulated by Maria Prophetissa: “One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth.” (Jung CW12, ¶25) In formulations such as these, it is clear that the fourth term is overdetermined in the precise sense of the word: it is at once a class among others and the cause that underlies the whole. Psychologically speaking, overdetermination doesn’t mean “many meanings” (polysemy); it means the incorporation of an inner division and agreement within itself; it is its own whole in every part, its own identity in every difference. Thus it returns to itself with every new appearance.

History is also governed by a similar dialectical pattern of consciousness which is expressed in the famous rise and fall of civilizations; it is a material and spiritual pattern of transformation which plays out, in spectacular fashion, in all the bloody struggles and compromises between traditional ideology, the guardian of the status quo, and the radical emergence of new mythic horizons. We often call this pattern “revolution,” suggesting both a movement of eternal return and the birth of something new out of the crumbling edifice of the past.

Moreover, seen through the lens of evolutionary biology, the miracle of radical self-emergence suggests that the level of the archetypal is not eternally fixed or frozen in time; it can also evolve in sudden bursts of revolutionary creativity. Rather than understanding the eternity of archetypes as something literally “timeless,” we should recognize it for what it is phenomenologically: an ecstatic mode of temporal temporality, which Heidegger also characterized as a kind of “being-toward-death.” Thus the experience of the archetypal delivers us once again into an experience of death-drive (todestrieb), with its compulsion to repeat, again and again, the eternal return of a new birth out of the ashes of time.

This is just as Campbell would have it. The psychological experience of the archetypal constitutes the true mythic dimension. But the object of experience here is no longer a subjective fancy. It is an experience of what Jung appropriately called “the objective psyche,” a term which stands for the gates of the collective unconscious and its archetypal potentialities. For Jung the “subjective psyche” was identical with a mode consciousness entirely ruled by the “personal unconscious,” that is, by a purely ideological and personalistic attitude, whereas “the objective psyche is something alien even to the conscious mind through which it expresses itself.” (CW12, ¶48) In part, this alien character is due to the fact that “the objective psyche is independent in the highest degree.” (CW12, ¶51) It is a will that is not our own in which we come to meet the archetypal force of transcendent creativity — even, or most especially, in times of pandemic and social unrest.


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