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Self and Symbolization

Dan Fleming suggests that culture has turned outside in.

The nature of personal identity, of our idea of ourselves, has been a subject of debate since the days of Descartes and Kant. In most philosophical treatments, three aspects of the ‘self’ are interwoven: the subjective, experiencing self, the social self and the self as agent. In this speculative piece I want to argue firstly that in the middle ages the social self was paramount and was defined by what I will call ‘extrospection’, secondly that by the twentieth century an introspectively subjective self had been formed by a turning outside in of culture (creating an inner landscape of symbols where previously symbolization had been external), and finally that a process of reconstruction may be called for (self as agent) in which the self deliberately re-makes its relationship with cultural symbols. To clarify the latter, I will take the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, not as a source of objective knowledge, but as an historical subject.

Felipe Vigarny’s altar relief in the Royal Chapel, Granada, was carved in 1520 to depict the surrender to the Catholic sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella, nearly thirty years previously, of the last Moorish king. The towering city battlements, the richly caparisoned horses, the ranks of Castilian pikemen, all serve to position the crowd of onlookers as precisely that – onlookers, their Latin European identity finally confirmed in spectacle after eight centuries of reconquest from the Arab other, here embodied by the surrendering figure of Abu ‘Abdallah. Christopher Columbus was among the many onlookers on that day in January 1492 who took the spectacle to heart as a sign of identity. “I did see the Moorish king leave by the gates of the city and kiss the royal hands of Your Highnesses”, he wrote to the regal pair, and suddenly everything became possible. The year of wonders, it was called, as the confidence of an identity finally wrenched free from the other, launched innumerable schemes in a spirit of unrestrained optimism and selfconfidence – and launched, as well, three ships towards a new world.

Although it must be foolish to generalize about anything that went on during so vast and complex a period as that between the fifth and the fifteenth centuries, a weight of visible evidence remains that throughout the middle ages the self was defined by such external symbols – they offered irresistible pictures of how things were. From battlements to cathedrals, from religious paintings to the heraldic devices on the caparison of the passing noble, viewed by the serf from the field, these representations were perhaps all one needed to feel who and where one was in the larger scheme of things. After detailed research among the records of mediaeval village society, M.M. Postan concluded that “freedom was not always estimated more highly than, or even as highly as, material possessions” (The Mediaeval Economy and Society, 1975, p.161). In other words, even that most intimate and subtle sense of self, one’s feeling of being ‘free’, was less significant than a visible recognition of self in material objects. From ‘being’ one’s cattle or sacks of grain to ‘being’ one of the millions of ‘onlookers’ at Granada (not present but representationally fixed in a common identity none the less) then becomes not such a very great step after all. The religious painting or carving, the heraldic sign system, the cathedral and castle, all become more powerful definers of self than the cow or the grain sack. But the principle at work is the same. A sense of self is writ large on the world around. Self-awareness is awareness of what the signs out there have to tell us about who we are: ‘extrospection’, to coin a phrase.

Introspection was something for the ascetic monastic movements or for full-time mystics such as Meister Eckhart (1260-1327). Indeed the irrelevance of introspection to a sense of self made the mystic the exception that proved the rule and enhanced his oddness, his separateness from those who, by knowing their place, knew precisely who they were. As if to sustain a necessarily more complex identity (necessary to cope with an expanding horizon, a sense of possibility, perhaps of change) the signs of identity in the outer world became more dense, more complex, more rich in meaning, more insistent. The Gothic stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris show Christ’s crown of thorns being brought to France. The five towers of Laon Cathedral are visible for miles around, reaching into heaven. A harvester binds his sheaf on the reliefs of Notre-Dame’s west front. A portrait of a plainly dressed merchant and of other onlookers appears in the fifteenth century painting Madonna del Ceppo by Fra Filippo Lippi and Fra Diamante. Those few examples could be multiplied a thousand fold. They placed the ordinary ‘self’ of the day as firmly as would the lines of a perspective painting, when mediaeval representational practices gave way to Renaissance art. Those examples say, this is who we are, this is the authority from which our identity derives, this is the place of man on earth and there is the place of God above.

It is interesting to find how many examples of mediaeval representational practices occur in Man and his Symbols (1978) edited by Carl Jung. Jung and his co-authors repeatedly use these as evidence for some basic atemporal content of the unconscious mind. But another explanation is possible. Jung’s book reproduces a relief from Chartres Cathedral showing the four evangelists as animals; a sixteenth century German painting of a stag hunt; a fifteenth century Flemish painting of a symbolic door and lock; a fifteenth century French painting of Eden; a manuscript illustration of King Arthur; a sixth century mosaic of Christ as shepherd; a fifteenth century painting of Dante dreaming about hell; a tiled maze from the floor of Chartres Cathedral; a sixteenth century German engraving called ‘The Bewitched Groom’; a fifteenth century statue of the Virgin Mary; and many others. What they all come to mean for Jung is the human “faculty to produce symbols” (p.18), underpinned by “the forgotten language of the instincts” (p.37). These, for Jung, are the “inherited shapes of the human mind” (p.57). Each ‘shape’ generates “a tendency to form such representations” (p.58) – such as are found in the symbolic world of the middle ages, for example. That tendency, Jung argues, has always been there and continues to form the material of contemporary cultures.

The section of Man and his Symbols written by von Franz offers perhaps the clearest explanations of these symbolic patterns. So the maze from Chartres symbolizes the unconscious itself. The witch in ‘The Bewitched Groom’ is one version of the anima, the primordial female in the unconscious. The Great Mother archetype is recognized, so too the animus (the male in the unconscious) and the shadow (dark side of the ego), and so on. Perhaps the most revealing is the seventh century manuscript with its ‘meander’ or entwining decoration of amazing complexity. For the Jungian this is the very symbol of psychic growth – a precursor of Jung’s own Mandalas, or diagrams of psychic exploration, wholeness and healing. What Jung achieved, in short, was the description of a rich inner landscape populated by symbolic figures and structured by ancient patterns – a self of secret depths opening out below the apparent shallowness of physical reality. Ultimately that depth becomes the collective unconscious from where all selves have emerged and where the most basic ‘shapes’ are to be found.

Now what is striking about all of this is that the Jungians generate an introspective description of the self’s interior that is as rich and dense as the self’s exterior in the symbolic products of the middle ages. That Jung viewed the latter as projections outwards of the former does not prevent us from turning things around and viewing his ‘discoveries’ as in fact a projection inwards of symbolic material that is wholly cultural rather than, in some given sense, psychological.

The rich and complex inner landscape charted by Jung began to be fully visible to him during his period of mental breakdown between 1913 and 1917. His rift with Freud contributed to this collapse but so too did Europe’s descent into a conflict that eventually saw Enlightenment rationality reduced to the efficiency of the railway timetables which took a generation of young men to their deaths. I want to suggest that Jung is an extremely important figure, not because of the objective validity of his theories, but because he remains one of the clearest examples of how culture finally turned itself outside in in this century.

Like the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of Matthew Arnold’s sea of faith, retreating off the naked shingles of the world, meaning more generally began to withdraw from the external glories of a culture that offered a fixed place for the ‘extrospective’ self. (The reasons for this are complex, of course, but the emergence and consolidation of science is a principal feature, draining mystery at long last from the external world.) In Jung we have, so to speak, the historical moment in which that withdrawal finally entered the self and exploded out into an inner landscape instead. Mirrored in that particular instance we have the whole lingering contrast between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. The latter is the shingle left behind by that withdrawing tide. We still cannot shake off the feeling that television soap opera is not quite up to the standard, culturally, of a mediaeval stained glass window. But that is only to sense the altered function of culture. It is no longer the self writ large externally. Jung offered us the self writ large internally, and that landscape is still being explored (whether Jung’s own maps are accepted or not). Externally, the kind of culture we are left with in the twentieth century is not impoverished but different. It no longer functions to sustain the ‘extrospective’ definition of the self. For that the self now looks inward much of the time.

At worst this turning outside in, this withdrawal from external representations and re-emergence as an inner landscape, has led to debilitating introspection. At best, however, it functions as a continuing invitation to understand ourselves better – which is to say to do the kind of thing that Jung did, even if we don’t accept his results as objectively factual. What Jung did we can perhaps term ‘reconstruction’. He took the material from that withdrawing cultural tide and reconstructed it. The results (anima, animus, shadow and all) have the effect of a good story: they make old things new and reenergize our capacity to use those resources in order to feel and think more clearly, more subtly and more independently of what we are given. Like a good story, too, we may feel that the characters or the plot have a ring of truth to them. (So Abu ‘Abdallah would be the shadow.) That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are factual.

Jung’s moment is probably past, however, in the sense that we have been left on Arnold’s shingle beach and the option is no longer readily open to us to reconstruct the symbols of past cultures (except as ‘heritage’, invention of the museum industry). Perhaps it falls to us to reconstruct our own, even as it happens, so rapid is the process of cultural production in the world of mass media. The objects of consumer culture have replaced those of an older culture concerned to tell its subjects explicitly who they were. No matter how much we are products of the culture in which we live, we tend to look inside ourselves to find out who we are. However, it still remains for us to understand more fully the relationships between ourselves and the objects of our culture, freed as they are from that older explicit duty of instruction. “The study of individual, as well as of collective, symbolism is an enormous task, and one that has not yet been mastered”, says Jung (p.94). It may be that we can usefully rephrase that, so as to make of the task the reconstruction of individual and collective symbolism. Where ‘study’ implies the examination of objective facts, ‘reconstruction’ suggests instead an active intervention in the processes of symbolization, the ‘factuality’ of which is always relative.

But it may be that Jung’s internal characters and narratives are still useful as examples. Just as he used them to give new meaning to the stuff of an older culture, as it siphoned out of the external world into an inner landscape opening up as the new place to go in search of self, so perhaps we can use them as models of the sort of reconstructive activity we can do with our culture. Jung’s purpose was ultimately one of self-growth (for himself and his patients). Since his death in 1961, education has increasingly identified selfgrowth as one of its primary goals (as distinct from other ideas such as socialization). It may be that educational practices should be developed which encourage the learner to reconstruct the stuff of contemporary culture, to find there archetypal images such as the shadow, animus, anima, trickster, child, wise old man/woman, etc. This would be done, not as the ‘discovery’ of hidden truths, but as the deliberate reconstruction of the contextual stuff of culture in order to make it more usable in the learner’s process of growth. Active imagination would replace unconscious excavation.

It has to be said, though, that despite a post- Kantian linkage of aesthetics and the philosophy of mind, one looks more or less in vain amongst contemporary philosophical writings on imagination, creativity and subjectivity to find a framework of ideas against which to test speculation such as is offered here.

© D.Fleming 1994

Dan Fleming lectures in the innovative Humanities Combined programme at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, where students are encouraged to break down the traditional barriers between Humanities subjects.

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