Reply To: The Blessing of Spiritual Poverty,” with Mythologist Norland Téllez, Ph.D.”
Thank you so much Stephen, thank you for bringing out Campbell’s texts, to put into a broader context this whole issue of “cultural appropriation” which circles around the issue of working from within our own tradition. In an ironic way, we are dealing with the lack of cultural appropriation of our own culture in the Occident! And of course, when it comes to importing culture from the East taking into account our [the West’s] long history of geopolitical interventions, of imperialistic wars of expansion on both sides—the situation becomes even more complicated! Not even Marco Polo could traverse the ocean of this mythic history in a paragraph or two!
Your question about my possible advocacy of a literal interpretation of the Christian myth, on the other hand, was a little more surprising. And although my very style of writing and thinking speaks to the very opposite, to making things more complicated and gnarly than they literally seem, to the annoyance of some critics—this charge is not altogether out of line. In so far as it points to the conflation we ordinarily make between literalism and the concrete, I stand guilty as charged of the sin of “concretism,” with which Jung often chastised Freud. I am more with Freud here than with Jung but could never charge Freud for having a “literal” interpretation of Judaism, the Bible, or the Christian mythos. On the other hand, it is symptomatic of the Jungian “symbolic life” to wrestle with a certain anxiety about the body, about having to rescue the body from the purely symbolic—not having a clue about the meaning of “symbolic castration,” a whole psychological dynamic discovered by Freud and elaborated by Lacan, mythologists in their own right, who have much more to say about literalism, the imaginary and the symbolic, as well as the Real.
So I understand this confusion and general lack of knowledge on these obscure psychological matters, especially when we regard the unconscious, of course. But to be clear, in general, we tend to con-fuse the literal and the concrete as the literal sign often takes the place of the concrete experience, but in fact nothing could be further from reality than the literal. The literal is in fact, a highly abstract position.
I don’t want to get sidetracked, but briefly to explain why the literal is not to be equated with the concrete. In a counter-intuitive way, the literal is literally highly abstract. It reduces the richness of life into a rigid designator, whereas a “concrete” rendition of the human experience would have to include all the “abstract” invisible frameworks, mythic fantasies and institutional forces that make up any given historic event.
In this regard, yes, I am in favor of a more concrete or “existential” grasp of the individuation process—not only as a ”symbolic life”—but as an actual life in mytho-historic consciousness. My point of view would not be far from a kind of “dialectical materialism,” or even an “existential psychoanalysis,” both of which would be at odds with a certain Jungian conception of the “symbolic life” which is construed upon a literal–dualistic opposition between the literal and the symbolic, the abstract vs the concrete. From a mytho-historic view, on the other hand, the symbolic life and the actual life are indissolubly whole. On the other hand, the “symbolic life” could be a stand-in for an inauthentic and unexistential—or non-committal “pagan”—aestheticizing of all life, which is a perfect way to worship the status quo and embrace fully the illusions of the wish-fulfillment program of the pleasure principle. Whereas the authentic Christian path is decidedly beyond the Pleasure Principle, as Freud and Kierkegaard understood the immortality of death drive, spoken in terms of the passion of the infinite…
The fact that Western Buddhism can dish up our well-worn “pursuit of happiness” as a consequence of enlightenment only shows to what extent we can appropriate Eastern religions as a cover-up for the smooth functioning of status-quo wisdom—where even Coke will sell you happiness in a can.
When Jung notes, as you quoted above, that “Christ––like Buddha––is an embodiment of the self, but in an altogether different sense. Both stood for an overcoming of the world: Buddha, out of rational insight; Christ as foredoomed sacrifice” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections 279). The contrast of archetypal styles could not be made more clear. Where Christ as an archetype of the self puts the notion of love-sacrifice at its core, the Buddha exalts human reason as the highest lore—yet they all advance a fundamental teaching on the meaning of human suffering in the suffering of the world.
Through the Christian imagery, we get a religion of passionate attachment, a religion of Love, and with Buddhism you get a philosophic detachment from the world and a release from passion as its highest goals. This is why, as a passionate person deeply engaged in the material world, I could never be or become a proper Buddhist, nor do I have any need for special meditation techniques outside the ones provided by my own creative disciplines. Of course, I have nothing against these spiritual practices which I deeply respect. But I am more like Campbell in this regard. You remember when he was asked if he did any meditation at all and his answer was: “I read and underline books—that is my meditation!” Or something like that.
So yes, you could say that I have a more “literal” or material reading of Christianity but obviously not in the mindless sense of believing literally in the virgin birth, etc. On the other hand, neither do I literally believe in the “symbolic life” in a one-sided way. A purely symbolic or “spiritual” reading of the Bible is just as bad as a purely literal one. The one gets lost in myth and the other in history. Having been taught by Kierkegaard to regard an authentic leap of faith with fear and trembling, so to speak, I am glad to affirm the existential edge of Christianity as something more than a symbolic life, as something that reflects existentially an actual life. The model of individuation that Christianity proposes, therefore, includes the “literal” material conditions of life alongside the symbolic or “spiritual” aspect of the mind. In this intersection of matter and spirit, where the Word becomes flesh, the eternal symbol enters the body of historic time. In this crucible of time and eternity, the Christian myth takes on a unique significance. Rather than a creed or a conscious scheme, Christ becomes an embodiment of present mytho-historic consciousness.