The Unconscious as the Realm of Transformation - Prologue of "Hero With a Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell

The Unconscious as the Realm of Transformation

Campbell opens his book Hero With a Thousand Faces with an interesting concept, that of the unconscious mind as a place of transformation. In so many words, in the cavern of our mind there exists structures, modes of being, preplanned maps, latent designs, powerful information ... or however one would like to describe it, that at times in life make their way into the conscious world in which we operate. When this happens, we encounter "myth." A myth is the attempt of the conscious mind to understand these latent archetypes, to incorporate them into oneself, to die to old ways of being and be transformed to some better state. This may take place in ancient rituals of growth, in cultural stories, or if necessary, these archetypes may explore their way into the conscious through our dreams. 

A quick personal thought here. In reading Campbell, one might be tempted to take an relativistic stance towards religion. (I myself reject this view, and believe that Catholicism is the only true revealed religion from God. I see that all other religions are man's searching for the truth, but unsuccessful attempts at finding it.) But think about this ... why in the world do these quasi-spiritual archetypes exist within us? These are truths that can only be told by stories, not by science. One can never do a scientific experiment and come up with the wisdom of how to be properly human which is embedded in these archetypes or myths. How is it that these "eternal forms," for lack of a better word, exist within us? In my mind Plato seems to be correct after all. There is a part of us that exists in a realm which is higher than the physical-material world that we blod about in day by day. And so Campbell is hitting on the spiritual nature of humanity here in this work. 

The Unconscious, Dreams, and Myth
Campbell opens with a prologue chapter in which he makes the claim that all religions, stories, philosophies, arts, and human productions are from the same source, the human psyche. "Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will be always the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told." 

The psyche produces myth. And the myths have power. All of human civilization, human activity, and production is the product of the engine of myth. Myth is the portal between the human being and the world. "...myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation." 1 No matter the story, from a fairytale to a philosophy, each manifestation of human myth contains the whole force and power of the human psyche. This is because no myth is made up. Rather, the psyche finds expression for the deepest symbols of its existence in all these things. Thus, every little expression holds tremendous power. "... the logic, the heroes, and the deeds of myth survive into modern times. In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us has his private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream." 2

Modern Day Myth in Dreams
Campbell then tells a dream story which he took from a psychologist, Clement Wood, who apparently heard many such similar dreams in the thousands and recorded them. The dream goes something to the effect of a grown son who fails at his marriage and desires to return home to the comfort of his mother, who happily takes him back, while his father does not approve of the situation. His mother will accept and comfort him in the correct way. "The unsuccessful husband here reveals, with a really wonderful innocence, that instead of bringing his spiritual energies forward to the love and problems of his marriage, he has been resting, in the secret recesses of his imagination, with the now ridiculously anachronistic dramatic situation of his first and only emotional involvement, that of the tragicomic triangle of the nursery - the son against the father for the lover of the mother."

The mother is the first experience of love, goodness, beauty, etc. for the child. (And so the wife represents feminine love in a new way which does not always match the love of the mother, thus causing tension and a desire for retreat.) The father too represents the first intrusion into this relationship, which can disrupt it (and rightly it needs to be so). To remain immature in this relationship and desire to return to it instead of transcending it seems to be there in the male psyche. (Again, according to Campbell who is certainly drawing on Freud's theories). 4 

Interestingly, the failure of man to cleave to his wife fully spawns another psychology failure in the woman to return to the protection of her father. (If I am understanding Campbell correctly). 5 "'I dreamed,' wrote a troubled woman, 'that a big white horse kept following me wherever I went. I was afraid of him, and pushed him away. I looked back to see if he was still following me, and he appeared to have become a man. I told him to go inside a barbershop and shave off his mane, which he did. When he came out he looked just like a man, except that he had horse's hoofs and face, and followed me wherever I went. He came closer to me, and I woke up.'" (The horse, I am assuming, represents the desired protector that woman sees in her father.) 

Transformation Lies in the Cavern of the Unconscious
Campbell describes the human mind as dwelling place over a massive underground cavern. The dwelling place on top is our conscious self. It is the lived space that we understand and consciously think about ourselves and the world. But underneath in that cavern exist realities which are not conscious, and that we do not understand. Like gasses or fumes, that seep through the cracks in the group into our dwelling space, affecting it, and even destroying it. Down there in the depths exist parts of our selves, our drives, our desires that may be frightening, scary, dangerous. And so we may choose to try to keep them down there. Yet, it is only in confronting these depths of ourselves that we can integrate them into our conscious selves and take them under our control and shape them. Once we are willing to journey into the depths, we then can rebuild our conscious dwelling into bigger and better shape. 

"There are not only jewels but also dangerous jinn abide: the inconvenient or resisted psychological powers that we have not thought or dated to integrate into our lives. And they may remain unsuspected, or, on the other hand, some chance word, the smell of a landscape, the taste of a cup of tea, or the glance of an eye may touch a magic spring, and then dangerous messengers begin to appear in the brain. These are dangerous because they threaten the fabric of the security into which we have built ourselves and our family. But they are fiendishly fascinating too, for they carry keys that open the whole realm of the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self. Destruction of the world that we have built and in which we live, and of ourselves within it; but then a wonderful reconstruction, of the bolder, cleaner, more spacious, and fully human life - that is the lure, the promise and terror, of these disturbing night visitants from the mythological realm that we carry within." 6 The role of the psychoanalyst is to be the one versed in the meaning of these archetypal myths, figures, stories, and symbols in order to guide someone through the experience of their subconscious bubbling over into the conscious, and its meaning. 7 

With these things in mind, it becomes clear that the ancient myths and rituals were often means by which human transformation took place in the stages of life for men and women. There is always a need to break free of previous ways of being and thinking, both conscious and subconscious in order to mature and progress to new stages of life, whether that's puberty, becoming a warrior, marriage, giving birth, etc. And so these rituals helped break the individual of their old life stage and bring them forward into a new one, allowing them to transform and be revitalized in the process. 

"When we turn now, with this image in mind, to consider the numerous strange rituals that have been reported from the primitive tribes and great civilizations of the past, it becomes apparent that the purpose and actual effect of these was to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life. The so-called rites of passage, which occupy such a prominent place in the life of a primitive society (ceremonials of birth, naming, puberty, marriage, burial, etc.), are distinguished by formal, and usually very severe, exercises of severance, whereby the mind is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.• Then follows an interval of more or less extended retirement, during which are enacted rituals designed to introduce the life adventurer to the forms and proper feelings of his new estate, so that when, at last, the time has ripened for the return to the normal world, the initiate will be as good as reborn.” 8

And so mythical rituals, in so many words, allow the shedding of our infantile selves and the birth of a more mature self in the stages of life. If we do not have these, this call to transformation remains locked in the unconscious, only able to escape in our dreaming state. Likewise our conscious self remains infantile. "It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back." He mentions that a lot of the current neuroticism in our culture is due to the fact that we have no outlet for this maturing. Rather, we try to stay infants as long as possible. 9 Just as we face the necessity of transformation from infant to adult, we also face a needed transformation from adult to old age, with death of the next horizon. 10

Myth of King Minos
Campbell then connects this to the tale of the King Minos. Minos was the king of Crete, and while he was away tending to wars and trade routes, he wife had relations with a bull, producing a type of monster, a child with the body of a human, but the head and tail of a bull. (Now, partially, this was Minos' fault since that bull was there due to his failure to uphold part of a deal with Poseidon. He offended a god and then remained blind to that fact, and in his blindness, the god struck back in his own home.) This monstrous child needed to be hidden, and so he had a craftsman build a labyrinth under the palace in which to hide the child. 11

This labyrinth was incredibly well done, and to this monster were fed young people from conquered nations of the Cretans. "Thus according to the ancient legend, the primary fault was not the queen's but the king's; and he could not really blame her, for he knew what he had done. He had converted a public event to personal gain, whereas the whole sense of his investiture as king had been that he was not longer a mere private person. The return of the bull should have symbolized his absolutely selfless submission to the functions of his role. The retaining of it represented, on the other hand, an impulse to egocentric self-aggrandizement. And so the king 'by the grace of God' became the dangerous tyrant Holdfast - out for himself." 12

In other words, upon being blessed by the gods with the throne of kingship, a transformation which should have been ritualized by the dying to one's personal self for the good of the people, Minos did not take on the mantle of the people, but took the throne for her personal gain. He refused to sacrifice the sacred bull which was the sign of his kingship, and his wife was taken in by that very bull while he was away. 

The Archetype of the Tyrant-Monster
This story of Minos is the archetype known as the "tyrant-monster." In refusing to die to self in the way necessary for someone to take on a position of power, he holds it for himself and a monster is born from it, a monster which needs to be hidden away, yet corrupts his very household. "The inflated ego of the tyrant is a curse to himself and his world - no matter how his affairs may seem to prosper. Self-terrorized, fear-haunted, alert at every hand to meet and battle back the anticipated aggressions of his environment, which are primarily the reflections of the uncontrollable impulses to acquisition within himself, the giant of self-achieved independence is the worlds' messenger of disaster, even though, in his mind, he may entertain himself with humane intentions" 13 

At the same time the tyrant-monster is present, in the hearts of the people a desire is born. There is an inner cry for a hero to emerge, truly on behalf of the people. 

I will deal with the archetype of the hero in the next post. 
1 - Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. (Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press, 1973.) Pg. 3.
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