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Myth, Literature, and the Unconscious

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At a time when the place and significance of myth in society has come under renewed scrutiny, Myth, Literature, and the Unconscious contributes to shaping the new interdisciplinary field of myth studies. The editors find in psychoanalysis a natural and necessary ally for investigations in myth and myth-informed literature and the arts. At the same time the collection re-values myths and myth-based cultural products as vital aids to the discipline and practice of psychoanalysis. The volume spans a vast geo-cultural range (including ancient Egypt, India, Japan, nineteenth-century France, and twentieth-century Germany) and investigates cultural products from the Mahabharata to J. W. Goethe's opus and eighteenth-century Japanese fiction, and from William Blake's visionary poetry to contemporary blockbuster television series. It encompasses mythic topics and figures such as Oedipus, Orpheus, the Scapegoat, and the Hero, while mobilising Freudian, Jungian, object relations, and Lacanian psychoanalytic approaches. Bringing together an international array of both leading and emerging researchers, Myth, Literature, and the Unconscious provides an exceptionally rich overview of the concerns and exciting possibilities of this new interdisciplinary field while simultaneously contributing to scholarship on the literary texts and psychoanalytic concepts it evokes.

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Chapter One - Apocalypse, Transformation, and Scapegoating: Moving Myth into the Twenty-First Century



Apocalypse, transformation, and scapegoating: moving myth into the twenty-first century

Steven F. Walker

“Emotion” is a word that tends to put intellectuals off. However, to deal intellectually with myths one must also engage with their emotional effect—not just on the mind of the masses, but on one's own highly educated mind. In Jungian terms, whenever an archetype or archetypal pattern is constellated—whenever it is activated in the unconscious—the conscious response to it involves strong emotion. To sidestep this emotional response is to short-circuit the process of coming to terms adequately with the power of the myth. Unfortunately, it is at the moment of emotional response that intellectuals tend to sidestep the emotional response in favour of a mainly rational and even hyper-rational conceptual discourse. That is, I believe, a mistake, because, although emotional response can lead to emotional thinking, emotional thinking is a necessary step in the direction of rational thinking, at least in regard to the analysis and understanding of powerful myths. Emotional thinking, like emotion itself, may be confusing and disturbing to the rational mind, but it provides access to unconscious material that the rational mind can then assimilate and analyse.


Chapter Two - The Divine Image: Remaking Blake's Myths



The divine image: remaking Blake's myths

Jason Whittaker

I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Mans
I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create

Jerusalem 10.20–21; Erdman, 1988, p. 153

These words of Los, taken from William Blake's last great epic poem, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, are an important stimulus for Blake's influence on subsequent generations of writers and artists. Tony Tanner, in City of Words (1971), suggested these lines served as the rubric for an entire span of post-war writers and poets including Allen Ginsberg, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut, all of whom were concerned to create rather than “Reason & Compare”. Although the vogue for psychoanalytic interpretations of Blake has not flourished since its most fertile period between June Singer's The Unholy Bible: A Psychological Interpretation of William Blake published in 1973 and Diana Hume George's 1980 book Blake and Freud, Blake as an artist of the unconscious has recently started to attract considerably more interest via phenomenological and postmodern approaches, for example in the work of Mary Lynn Johnson, Peter Otto, and Laura Quinney. In William Blake on Self and Soul, Quinney begins with the observation that Blake was “both a political radical and a radical psychologist” (Quinney, 2009, p. xi), one whose reformulations of self and selfhood are particularly pertinent at precisely that moment when the self has been presumed to have disappeared from contemporary life. For Quinney, the legacy of empirical philosophy which other Romantics were not able to escape was the loneliness of the modern subject separated eternally from its object, its outside never quite assimilated to its inner self and thus the self “haunted” by the sense impressions that form it: “Wordsworth spelled out and bequeathed to psychoanalysis the notion of self-estrangement that is inherent in Locke's picture” (Quinney, 2009, p. 77). For Locke, rejection of innate ideas means that the self brings nothing into the world; in Blake's vision this must ultimately mean terror in the face of nature which is indifferent to the fate of the self. His answer (and one, Quinney suggests, that he shared with Neoplatonists) is to identify the self not with the ego but with the world soul, or the imagination. Blake's notion of the immortality of the soul does not imply the promise of the survival of the ego in the face of the apparent indifference of nature, but the ability of imagination to recognise the eternal now of all aspects of existence.


Chapter Three - The Yayāti Complex: A Contra-Oedipal take on Myth and the Unconscious



The Yayāti complex: a contra-oedipal take on myth and the unconscious

Saugata Bhaduri

It is likely that when one sets to examine the connections between myth and the unconscious, the figure of Oedipus would be the first to come to one's mind. How Freud interpreted the myth of Oedipus to stand as a metaphor for the unconscious of everyman is indeed spectacular. Let me quote here how Freud narrates the myth in question, connects it to the unconscious, and also claims it to be of universal import:

And now you will be eager to hear what this terrible Oedipus complex contains. Its name tells you. You all know the Greek legend of King Oedipus, who was destined by fate to kill his father and take his mother to wife, who did everything possible to escape the oracle's decree and punished himself by blinding when he learned that he had none the less unwittingly committed both these crimes…To this extent it has a certain resemblance to the progress of a psychoanalysis…He reacts as though by self-analysis he had recognized the Oedipus complex in himself and had unveiled the will of the gods and the oracle as exalted disguises of his own unconscious. It is as though he was obliged to remember the two wishes—to do away with his father and in place of him to take his mother to wife—and to be horrified at them…There can be no doubt that the Oedipus complex may be looked upon as one of the most important sources of the sense of guilt by which neurotics are so often tormented. But more than this: in a study of the beginnings of human religion and morality which I published in 1913 under the title of Totem and Taboo…I put forward a suggestion that mankind as a whole may have acquired its sense of guilt, the ultimate source of religion and morality, at the beginning of its history, in connection with the Oedipus complex. (Freud, 1916–1917, pp. 330–332)


Chapter Four - The Slaughter of Isaac: Oedipal Themes in the Akedah Narrative Revisited



The slaughter of Isaac: oedipal themes in the Akedah narrative revisited

Paul Cantz

Biblical narratives have historically been maligned or entirely ignored within the development of western thought in general and psychoanalytic metatheory in particular (Cantz, 2012; Cantz & Kaplan, 2013; Hazony, 2012; Kaplan, 1990, 2002; Wellisch, 1954). Sigmund Freud, despite his familiarity with biblical material as well as Jewish customs and rabbinic literature (Bakan, 1958; Küng, 1979; Yerushalmi, 1991; Gresser, 1994), chose to orient his theoretical writings and clinical jargon with myths and loan-words from Classical Greece (e.g. Oedipus, Narcissus, Eros, Kronos, catharsis), which he purported best captured the universal human condition (Downing, 1975). Freud's reliance on Greek-based metaphors, in all likelihood, derived from the ideological idealisation of Hellenic values imparted to him during his formative years attending the patently secular Viennese Gymnasium (Gay, 1987; Winter, 1997–1998; Winter, 1999). Sarah Winter (1999) and Arnold Richards (2006, 2008) have both highlighted Freud's implicit commitment to the German pedagogical spirit of Bildung, which, while not lending itself to a clean translation, broadly means “formation” or “self-cultivation”, but more specifically refers to the post-enlightenment, neo-humanist tradition that became the intellectual home of German scholars and the surest route for aspiring Jewish academics to achieve social respectability and professional advancement. The cosmopolitan, ardently secular ethos of Bildung would have made it unconscionable for Freud to interpret the Bible favourably. In a sense, the cultural pressures of Bildung blinded Freud, constricting him to draw narrowly upon the classical Latin, Greek, and European literature that conformed to the intellectual sensibilities of the Viennese bourgeois.


Chapter Five - From Oedipus to Ahab (and Back): Myth and Psychoanalysis in Science Fiction



From Oedipus to Ahab (and back): myth and psychoanalysis in science fiction

Angie Voela

Science fiction novels usually reflect contemporary concerns and anxieties in the form of things to come, and often contain didactic universal messages for the present and future of humanity. References to classical mythology and modern literary classics often reinforce these messages. But when Oedipus and Ahab are employed in the same contemporary novel, Flashforward (Sawyer, 1999), and appear to neither complement nor contradict one another, it is the reluctance or failure to settle for one or the other that becomes interesting.

The myth of Oedipus perhaps does not need an introduction. Let us, however, remind ourselves of the end of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, in which the wise king, shocked by the revelation of his fate and his own blindness, stabs himself repeatedly in the eyes before taking the road to exile.

In Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) Ahab is captain of the Pequod, the whaling vessel which the narrator, Ishmael, joins at Nantucket, Massachusetts. The novel defies simple classifications; it is a book about whaling, the sea, the community of men aboard the vessel, power relations and friendship, the pursuit of wealth and, in the case of Ahab, the obsessive pursuit of Moby Dick, the white whale. Ishmael first sets eyes on Ahab several days after the Pequod has sailed from Nantucket. He is impressed by the captain's physical appearance and intense silence. As the Pequod continues her expedition, Ishmael describes the initial whaling successes in detail, along with encounters with other vessels. Ahab's obsession with Moby Dick is established gradually as he repeatedly asks other captains about the white whale's whereabouts. Tensions grow between Ahab and his officers, when they try to remind him of the commercial purpose of their journey and his obligation towards his crew and the owners of the vessel. Ahab's single-mindedness is dramatically described in chapter ninety-nine, entitled The Doubloon. The captain nails a large Ecuadorian golden coin to the mast and pledges it as reward to “whoever raises a certain whale” (Melville, 1851, p. 472). Soon afterwards, Ahab sets the Pequod's course in pursuit of Moby Dick. Sightings of the whale, stories about his deadliness and even a request by the captain of the Rachel to help find his missing son, go unheeded by Ahab. The pursuit of Moby Dick ends with the destruction of the Pequod by the whale and the drowning of the crew. Entangled in the line of his own harpoon, Ahab is snatched from the last whaling boat and drawn to the bottom of the sea. Ishmael, the sole survivor, is rescued by the Rachel.


Chapter Six - Freudian and Jungian Approaches to Myth: The Similarities



Freudian and Jungian approaches to myth: the similarities

Robert A. Segal

For both Freud and Jung, modernity is distinctive in its decisive separation of the outer from the inner, which, oversimplified, means of the physical from the psychological. Previously, the demarcation had been blurry. There had been the projection of the inner onto the outer and even the reduction of the outer to the inner.

For example, in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus Mephistopheles famously describes hell as a sheer state of mind:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed

In any one self place; for where we are is hell,

And where hell is, there must we ever be.

(Marlowe, 1604 ed., I.553–555)

For Mephistopheles, whether or not for Marlowe himself, the world is the mind. Jung often cites Goethe's Mephistopheles but not Marlowe's and therefore not these lines.

In an even more famous case the outer is reduced to the inner yet still retained as outer. In Paradise Lost (1667) Milton somehow combines riveting descriptions of hell and paradise as places “out there” in the world with characterisations of them as sheer states of mind. Rather than reducing hell and paradise to states of mind, he makes them at once physical places and states of mind, though he never works out how they can be both. Jung cites Paradise Lost, most of all in analysing the Miller fantasies, but he considers different issues from this one (see Jung, 1911–12/1952, pars. 60–84 passim; see also Jung, 1952, pars. 468–473).


Chapter Seven - The Boy who had Dreams in his Mouth



The boy who had dreams in his mouth

Eric Rhode

Jaan Puhvel (1987, p. 1) introduces his readers to a survey of comparative mythology by considering the derivation of the word myth. He claims that the original derivation of the word myth is unclear—“most probably it is based on the interjection (mu) mu”. He thinks that “word, speech, talk” is the original sense of myth. Homer, he says, juxtaposes the word myth to epos, meaning speech—and to ergon, meaning deed. In the Greek tragedians, as well as in Homer, myth can mean “tale, story, narrative”, without any reference to truth. Puhvel relates myth to implausibilities and tall tales. He opposes it to logos, which he thinks of as truth-centred. I do not want to follow him down this fascinating path. My concern is with myth as sacred telling, myth as mouth-making—the ways in which mouth can be thought to be a site for the sacred. My concern is with myth as (mu) mu, myth as linking mouth to a mother.

The psychologist Jean Piaget once asked a little boy where he dreamt; and the boy answered, in my mouth (Lewin, 1946, cited in Arlow, 1973, p. 92).1 You may think that the little boy is talking nonsense. Or you may think that he is in touch with some likeness between the act of dreaming and the act of being nourished by food. It is as though food, in particular a mother's milk, were a concrete equivalence for the ability to dream. Perhaps each of us carries this concrete equivalence somewhere in our minds. Dreaming by means of a mouth is an archaic mode of awareness. Evidence for it is to be valued because most people, I would think, lose direct touch with it fairly early on. If I extend the idea, I come to the view that the umbilical cord prior to its severance performs the same service for a foetus. The nourishment that passes by way of the umbilical cord is identified with the capacity to dream. (However, making a connection between dreaming and mouth cuts out an important factor in nurture: that the one who nurtures the infant does so by means of a gaze, as well as by food. I conjecture that it is the gaze, when loving, that is of paramount importance in the process of being so nourished).


Chapter Eight - Myth, Synchronicity, and Re-Enchantment



Myth, synchronicity, and re-enchantment*

Roderick Main

The disenchantment of the world

Max Weber (1864–1920) described modern culture as characterised by capitalism, rationalisation, disenchantment, subjectivist culture, and democratisation (Scaff, 2000, pp. 103–107). These features of modernity are intimately interlinked in Weber's thought, and any one of them gives access to the overall problem of modernity as he saw it. In this chapter I shall focus on the feature of disenchantment (Entzauberung, “de-magification”), described by Weber as a condition in which “there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather…one can in principle, master all things by calculation”, and in which, therefore, “[o]ne need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits” (Weber, 1918, p. 139). The Weberian scholar Lawrence Scaff neatly elaborates:

The disenchantment thesis holds that modernity represents a loss of the sacred sense of wholeness and reconciliation between self and world provided by myth, magic, tradition, religion, or immanent nature. It ushers in the disruptive sense of disengagement, abstraction, alienation, homelessness, and the “problem of meaning” that begins to gnaw at the vital core of modern experience and social philosophy. (Scaff, 2000, p. 105)


Chapter Nine - The Confrontation with the Anima in Akinari Ueda's Story “Jasei no in” (“A Serpent's Lust”, 1776)



The confrontation with the anima in Akinari Ueda's story “Jasei no in” (“A serpent's lust”, 1776)

Janet A. Walker

In 1776 the Japanese writer Akinari Ueda (1734–1809) published “Jasei no in”, one of nine stories in the genre of the kaidan, or narration of the “strange or anomalous” (Ueda, 2007, p. 13), that were compiled under the title Ugetsu monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain). (In this chapter I shall refer to the author in the customary way, as Akinari, but I shall refer to the original version of his story, and the translation of it from which I quote, under his family name, Ueda.) The story, consisting of twenty-four pages in the Japanese edition, depicts the encounter of the youthful male character, Toyoo, with an alluring woman who turns out to be a serpent—an encounter that leads him into his first experience of love, then into unethical behaviour, then into a dangerous situation in which not only he himself but others stand to lose their lives if he does not act, and finally, through the help of a Buddhist priest mentor figure, into a state of maturation. The story of a male confronting an alluring but malevolent serpent-woman goes back at least to Tang-dynasty China (618–907), according to Wilt L. Idema (2009). Akinari modelled his story on a later version of it in Jingshi tongyuan (Stories to Caution the World, 1624), by Feng Menglong (1547–1646), which has been translated by Diana Yu (1978). Feng shaped the story into a conversion narrative, wherein the weak hero, freed from his possession by a white serpent woman by a Buddhist priest, becomes a monk. The japanologist Leon Zolbrod follows this interpretation in considering Akinari's story as depicting Toyoo's “quest for enlightenment” (Zolbrod, 1974, p. 58), whereas the Akinari scholar Blake Morgan Young interprets the story as a Confucian morality tale that emphasises Toyoo's overcoming of “lax behavior”, “disciplining himself and confronting his problem head on” (Young, 1982, pp. 61, 63).


Chapter Ten - Sorrow and Surprise: A Reading of Théophile Gautier's Sphinx Complex



Sorrow and surprise: a reading of Théophile Gautier's sphinx complex

Leon Burnett

In Freudian theory, the “Oedipus complex” refers to a psychosexual configuration the name of which is derived from, and alludes to, the plot of Sophocles' Theban tragedy of fate, Oedipus Rex. The focus is upon the outcome of a prophecy, initially predicted by the oracle before Oedipus was born, which reflected or, rather, exposed the allegedly hidden desires of the eponymous hero: that Oedipus, in Freud's words, “is destined to murder his father and take his mother in marriage” (Freud, 1900a, p. 261). Since the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, Freud's theory has had both its enthusiastic advocates and its sceptical detractors. One of the more articulate—and more interesting—of the latter in recent years is Jean-Joseph Goux, who, in his book Oedipus, Philosopher, questions the basis of Freud's generalising interpretation of the myth. He takes issue with Freud's epistemological postulate that “the complex explained the myth” (Goux, 1993, p. 1) and offers a counter-proposition that “it is the Oedipus myth that explains the complex” (ibid., p. 2). “It is”, he argues, “because the West is Oedipean that Freud discovered the ‘Oedipus complex’” (ibid.). In contesting Freud's proposition, Goux grounds his argument in a structural analysis of the myth as anomalous. Fundamental to his thesis is the contention that “Oedipus is the prototypical figure of the philosopher, the one who challenges sacred enigmas in order to establish the perspective of man and self” (ibid., p. 3). While this orientation in no way diminishes the importance of the oracular pronouncement, it does bring into play the hero's encounter with the sphinx, which receives no more than a cursory mention in The Interpretation of Dreams, as an event of considerable significance, for the fabulous monster is the very incarnation of sacred enigma.


Chapter Eleven - From the Archaic into the Aesthetic: Myth and Literature in the “Orphic” Goethe



From the archaic into the aesthetic: myth and literature in the “Orphic” Goethe

Paul Bishop

The archaic is the primal, the primordial, or (to use a favourite German prefix) the Ur-, but how does Goethe use the archaic, and what does it mean for him? To put it another way, does his late poem “Primal words. Orphic” (Urworte. Orphisch) really belong, as its title suggests it might, to the tradition of Orphic literature? In what sense would it be true to describe Goethe as an Orphic writer?1

Historically speaking, the doctrine of the cult of Orpheus represented a transitional stage from the naive polytheism of the Homeric world, whatever form that belief might actually have taken (Veyne, 1983), to the more philosophical speculation of the fourth and fifth centuries BCE (Hoffmeister, 1930, p. 174).2 Whilst rooted in the mother-cults of the Neolithic period and in the orgiastic cult traditions of the Middle East, Orphism initiated the process of moving away from nature by reflecting on nature, a process that resulted in the flowering of pre-Socratic thought (Wipf, 1974, p. 130). The Orphic Hymns—appearing in second to third century Greece, and addressed to various divine entities—represent the last lyrical expression of ancient Greece, bridging age-old tradition and the ethical values of a new epoch.3


Chapter Twelve - Orpheus, Eurydice, Blanchot: Some thoughts on the Nature of Myth and Literature



Orpheus, Eurydice, Blanchot: some thoughts on the nature of myth and literature*

Lyndon Davies

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has always been a staple of western European culture, a thematic and symbolic resource for writers, craftsmen, and artists in every age and genre. Even now, in our post-modern era, it's apparent that the tale has lost none of its fascination for creative practitioners; in fact, if anything, it's more popular than ever: poets, composers, painters, choreographers, dramatists—at the moment everyone seems to want a piece of Orpheus.

The more you look into it the more you begin to feel that maybe this particular yarn has been done to death, but then there always seems to be something more to say about it, and it always seems to have something more to say about us. As a story it covers so many of the human bases: love, joy, loss, fear, mourning, disintegration, and no doubt this is one of the reasons for its popularity. But at the same time it seems so apposite to the artist's situation, so congruent with the inner shape of the creative process, not least in its depiction of a consuming passion, a commitment potentially destructive in its intensity. At bottom you could say it's a story about death, and about the search for reparation for that potentially catastrophic event. Reparation, that is, through the power of art. Orpheus loves Eurydice, who dies, so Orpheus goes down into Hades to rescue her. By the beauty of his song he charms the infernal gods into releasing her, then loses her again by defying the gods' injunction not to look back. Orpheus' search for reparation, beginning from the sense of an irreparable loss at the surface of things, echoes the human drama in a civilisation whose validating rituals have been drained of power. But it also parallels the artist's humiliating search for the true poem, the true painting, the truest song, the one that completes the chain of yearning, if only for the merest particle of a moment.



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