Archetypal-Mechanics from an Unseen Aid
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves that the term “the unseen aid,” along with so many other potentials for that title like “the Great Mother,” “the psychopomp/guide-of-souls,” “the wise old woman or man,” etc., are archetypes. If we are to approach the unseen aid one-sidedly as such, then our journey has failed before it’s begun. And please note that bit about “one-sidedly,” as this qualification is essential to what follows.
As mythologists, we work with archetypes to better understand the complex, voluminous content of myth. However, in our sincere efforts to organize and expand our knowledge through their employment, we often overlook that archetypes are (among other things) abstract constructions, theoretical classifications that are deduced after the fact to address sources that precede the fact. And “the fact” is whichever specific mythic figure or image stands before us, so to speak, at a given moment.
And so, these figures are lifted from their specificity, from the settings and contexts of their narratives, and dropped into their new (unfurnished) conceptual homes. We then seek out candidates to keep them company, but do so with eyes one-sidedly trained on identifying traits in keeping only with the general category we wish to fill. And here, as a gentle warning, we will do well to reflect on the expression “whatever one is looking for, that is what one sees.” In short, our quest for fuller knowledge is paradoxically narrowed by the generalized breadth we impose upon the content, including the dim presumption that by knowing the archetype we know the figure. These are but a few examples of the collateral damage we incur when dabbling one-sidedly in archetypes, when we lose the concreteness of the original image.
Having said that, however, consider the following in which Campbell employs the Buddha-figure as the image: “The Buddha,” he writes, “is not a graven image to be understood concretely. It is a meditation tool, something to be seen through.” (A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living, 190) What does he mean, not to be understood concretely? Don’t we want concreteness—indeed, exquisitely precise concreteness—in the image?
Now we come to the subtle misapplication that accompanies the term “concrete,” and to the severe consequences that follow. The problem rests in a failure to recognize that our encounters with images are process. When we approach their manifest concreteness as conclusions, as final culminations of the whole meeting, then we are halted in a process meant to take us farther. This is literalism, the great enemy to deeper insight and to deeper experience.
To further illustrate, I have reworked Campbell’s quote a little (and I daresay without diminishing in any way his intention): “The image is not to be encountered and then left as concrete. Rather, it is to be initially encountered in its full concreteness which then opens a way to the depths that reside behind its face”—precisely why Campbell goes on to say that the image is “something to be seen through.”
But I’m not done yet. I think the greatest danger that accompanies blunt archetypal application is that it neglects the utterly indispensable exception, which quite contrary to the generalizing-force of the archetype, reveals the unique characteristics of the figure in question. After all, “exception” is the chief criterion that distinguishes uniqueness. This is why amplification is such an important practice for the mythologist. For in surveying a high volume of correlative mythic figures, one invariably encounters more exceptions, more oddities, more that’s not in keeping with a figure’s prescribed archetype.
Furthermore, the term “the exception” is itself another archetype—a concept addressing the concept that figures possess uniqueness. Whereas “a” figure’s uniqueness, initially revealed in the specificity of its image, serves as the concrete bedrock of its symbolic potential. I must introduce symbol because it is too often conflated with archetype. Being a literature type, I like to begin my distinction between symbol and archetype through the simplest literary classifications available, wherein the symbol is the image, and the archetype is the theme. Taken together in process, the concrete immediacy of the image gives way to the symbol, becoming the psychic-machinery that speeds the thematic influence of the archetype. Done deal.
Well, almost, because as we dive deeper into the inquiry, the two will eventually (and inescapably) be subsumed by grey regions. Take, for instance, the pre-packaged meanings of the more general images we find in dictionaries of symbols (and with “more general” we enter the grey). These meanings accompany images that are concrete, yes, but that are generally-so—images like tree, as opposed to the young maple with her thousand broad palms dishing up the light (which you’ll have a hard time finding in a dictionary of symbols). To these former (general images), which initiate the overlap of symbols with archetypes, Jung advises that we learn them and then forget them. In so doing, I like to think that the presence of their positive absence, like a residue, somehow holds in the mind of the inquirer—somehow lingers in the periphery of the conscious, yet not altogether unconscious. Grey regions, indeed.
The practice of learning-and-then-forgetting is applicable also to archetypes, and allows us to handle them without being derailed, or rather, railroaded by them to pre-conditioned, subsuming conclusions. It keeps us attentive to process, while simultaneously activating more pervasive means of perception like intuition and feeling which, alongside our forgetting, nuance the specific image, but do so at a distance—in a way that does not contaminate but rather complements its “suchness.”
Here at the end, with room only for a few sentences, I want to address the unseen aid who threw me into this entanglement of archetypal-mechanics. I could offer names like the angel of necessity or the daimon of the Ancient Greek philosophers but as it is with archetypal-prescription, so the act of naming can hardly contain or reveal the totality of a thing. And not wanting to box this figure into a name or concept or even image, I will leave it for now “as is” and, true to its nature, unseen.
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