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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

the symbolic education

Home from a final day of holiday errands and pastimes. Kimmie took off a few days around the Easter weekend; this is her last. Now she's up at the hair salon, having color added (the perm was last week). I have a few minutes to type a blog-post.

This is a time of deep, dark soul-searching. Many things I am thinking and finding I can't publish in this blog. I can barely write some of them in my journal.

I'm reading many different books, as usual, slowly, a few pages at a time each. One of these is Erich Neumann's The Origins and History of Consciousness, first published in Germany in 1949. I bought the book in 1979, when I was 20, as part of my passion for Jung's teachings, and because the title intrigued me. I read it at the time but found it tough going, or perhaps not what I was expecting, so I didn't get much out of it.

The cover of my Princeton Bollingen paperback edition is a simple white with an off-center graphic of a snake biting its own tail. According to Neumann, this ancient image, the uroboros, is a symbol of the primal unconscious, before the arising of any consciousness. He goes on to explicate, through the use of myths, how the consciousness of modern man, especially modern Western man, has slowly evolved and become more differentiated. This phylogenetic process is also repeated in each of us, ontogenetically, in our individual development of consciousness.

The development of consciousness, says Neumann, is symbolized in three main stages, represented by three great cycles of myth: the creation myth, the hero myth, and what he calls the transformation myth. Each of these cycles is composed of two or three substages of its own, with accompanying myths. For example, the first cycle, the creation myth, he breaks down into three parts: the uroboros, the Great Mother, and the separation of the World Parents, or the principle of opposites. I have read, this time through, only as far as the Great Mother (page 101), but I am getting much more out of it than I did 27 years ago.

Back then, I think I was disappointed to find this book to be not merely an explication of Jung's work, but an extension of it, as Neumann takes Jung's ideas and organizes them around his own theme. I was hoping for something more "orthodox". I was barely becoming acquainted with Jung's ideas; I wasn't ready to hear about reorganizations of them and new concepts. Now I take at face value Jung's own foreword to the book, in which he expresses appreciation and even some envy for Neumann in his systematization of the ideas. Jung felt himself to be a pioneer, and therefore not in a position to be able to see the significance of his own work so well.

I find Neumann's view of psychology and mythology to be powerful and profound. His relative obscurity is undeserved, and may be partly because he died in 1960 in Tel Aviv at the relatively young age of 55. This book, appearing in 1949, is a worthy companion to those other mighty symbolic works of the 20th century from that same period--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947), The White Goddess by Robert Graves (1948), and The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (1949).

So: the symbolic education continues, which is an education in my own psyche, my own past. Time for today's lesson.

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