Jungian Society for Scholarly Studies (JSSS)

The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.-- Carl Jung


2004 International Conference
Jungian Society for Scholarly Studies
Newport, Rhode Island, USA

Jung's "Collective Unconscious," Literature, and Cultural Studies, in a Colonial/Postcolonial Context

Kuldip Kaur Kuwahara

Carl Jung's theory of the "Collective Unconscious," grounded in a historical, colonial context, has been challenged by postcolonial and postmodern perspectives on the study of literature and cultural studies. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung recalls his experience of traveling in the Sahara desert, "The deeper we penetrated into the Sahara, the more time slowed down for me; it even threatened to move backward. The shimmering heat waves rising up contributed a good deal to my dreamy state" (241). He observes that the people in his new surroundings "have their being in emotions...the ego has almost no autonomy. The situation is not so different with the European; but we are after all, somewhat more complicated. At any rate the European possesses a certain measure of will and directed intention" (242). He adds, "What we lack is intensity of life" but affirms that he could not help feeling superior because "I was reminded at every step of my Europeanism. That was unavoidable; my being European gave me a certain perspective on these people who were so differently constituted from myself, and utterly marked me off from them" (245).

In search of knowledge of "a foreign collective psyche," Jung raises the question, "How, for example, can we become conscious of national peculiarities if we have never had the opportunity to regard our own nation from outside? Regarding it from outside means regarding it from the standpoint of another nation" (246). Recognizing that he was "still caught up and imprisoned in the cultural consciousness of the white man" he decides to descend to "a still lower cultural level" by visiting the Pueblo Indians in America (247), only to discover that "What we from our point of view call colonization, missions to the heathen, spread of civilization, etc., has another face--the face of a bird of prey seeking with cruel intentness for distant quarry-a face worthy of a race of pirates and highwaymen" (248).

Jung's recognition of the stark, troubling truth about the nature of colonialism does not detract from his belief in the distinction between the "primitive" and the "civilized." Zora Neale Hurston's interest in folklore challenges Jung's interpretation of the terms "civilized" and "primitive." Hurston's interest in studying different cultures, as a student of Anthropology, led her to explore critical issues related to the use of the terms "civilized" and "primitive" within the larger context of colonial/postcolonial studies. The Nigerian poet, dramatist, and literary critic, Wole Soyinka's response to Karl Jung further develops Hurston's perspective on the nature and value of the artistic response. In Myth, Literature, and the African World, Soyinka points out that to the African mind, myth-making, and magical thinking are not a form of escape, as has often been assumed by the West, but a way of capturing the very essence of experience. In his play, The Lion and the Jewel, Soyinka explores the power of Yoruba myth to recreate the reality of cultural conflict through the magic of song, dance, and pantomime. As an entire world comes alive, the audience is immersed in the experience of watching a play. Soyinka challenges the Western mind with its emphasis on reason and logic to experience the Nigerian world through myth and magic that provide not an escape from life but capture the very essence of it through art.

Soyinka's interpretation of different world-views in Europe and Africa are helpful in our formulation of differences. He asserts that the different formulation of experience is not "simply a difference of style or form, nor is it confined to drama alone. It is representative of the essential differences between two world views, a difference between one culture whose very artifacts are evidence of a cohesive understanding of irreducible truths and another, whose creative impulses are directed by period dialectics"(38). He goes on to draw a contrast between "Western drama as a form of esoteric enterprise spied upon by fee-paying strangers, as contrasted with a communal evolution of the dramatic mode of expression, this latter being the African." (38). He concludes that "Of far greater importance is the fact that western dramatic criticism habitually reflects the abandonment of a belief in culture as defined within man's knowledge of fundamental, unchanging relationships between himself, and society and within the larger context of the observable universe" (38).

If the twentieth-century was the age of Freud and psychology, the twentieth-and twenty-first centuries extended and re-shaped that influence through Freud's student Jung's interest in the "Collective Unconscious" and its relation to cultural studies. Writing in the first half of the twentieth century, Zora Neale Hurston struggled to recreate cultural world views. In her preoccupation with differences and similarities in diverse cultural contexts lies her appeal to the twenty-first century reader. These worldviews and landscapes parallel twenty-first century interests in cultural studies, as well as multi-ethnic and interdisciplinary approaches to diasporic studies. In her ability to catch the flavor of life through speech and writing, Hurston touches the essence of experience and develops her unique way of seeing the truth about human nature, power structures, what it means to be human, and to touch the source of wonder and mystery that connects readers and writers across oceans of time and cultural contexts. Hurston's collection of folk tales, Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk Tales from the Gulf States, published in 2001 and edited, with an introduction, by Karla Kaplan, are rich in insight and humor. An artful storyteller, Hurston catches the flavor and essence of the American South at the turn of the century. She looks at life with fresh eyes seeking the truth about the human condition as she listens, records, and reflects on the rich cultural landscape. As a woman writer, Hurston creates a new appreciation for women's folklore which she sees as a performance. In seeing folklore as a performance within socio-cultural contexts, Hurston makes significant contribution to feminist theory within folklore studies.

Unlike her contemporaries, Hurston does not carry the black man's burden; she is free as a black woman to celebrate life's essence through her art. Rudyard Kipling carries the white man's burden in an age of Colonialism in the way Salman Rushdie and Wole Soyinka do not. In his criticism of Jung's theory of the "Collective Unconscious," Soyinka points out in Myth, Literature and the African World that "Jung differentiates the nature of the archetype in the 'primitive' mind from that of the 'civilized' mind even as he pays lip-service to the universality of a collective unconscious, and to the archetype as the inhabitant of that hinterland" (35). He goes on to elaborate on "What we call the mythic inner reality is both the psychic sub-structure and temporal subsidence, the cumulative history and empirical observations of the community. It is nonetheless primal in that time, in its cyclical reality, is fundamental to it" (35). He concludes that the inner world is "not static, being constantly enriched by the moral and historic experience of man" (35).

A product of the European Enlightenment, Jung sees the rational as opposed to the "primitive." Yet, even as he devalues emotions, he recognizes the vitality associated with a rich emotional life. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung explores his inner conflict as he travels to the non-western world:

"Just as a childhood memory can suddenly take possession of consciousness with so lively an emotion that we feel wholly transported back to the original situation, so these seemingly alien and wholly different Arab surroundings awaken an archetypal memory of an only too well known pre-historic past which apparently we have entirely forgotten. We are remembering a potentiality of life which has been overgrown by civilization, but which in certain places is still existent. If we were to relive it naively, it would constitute a relapse into barbarism. Therefore we prefer to forget it. But should it appear to us again in the form of a conflict, then we should keep it in our consciousness and test the two possibilities against each other—the life we live and the one we have forgotten." (245-6)

Passages such as these place Jung at odds with Hurston and Soyinka's literary and cultural masterpieces. Soyinka's The Lion and the Jewel and Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God provide examples of literary and cultural masterpieces that have challenged the literary cannon in the twentieth century. Jung's "Collective Unconscious" is firmly grounded in a colonial context while Hurston's multi-ethnic writing looks ahead to the twenty-first century; Soyinka catches the very essence and rhythm of life in complex postcolonial contexts. To the postcolonial critic, Jung's definition of the "civilized" and "primitive" limit his theory of the "Collective Unconscious" to the extent that it diverges from Soyinka's post-colonial response to the primal instinct as the essence of cultural identity and collective consciousness.

Works Cited

Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. Ed.Aniela Jaffe. New York: Random House, 1989.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.
Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature, and the African World. Cambridge: Cambridge Universtiy Press, 1976.
Kaplan, Carla. ed. Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk Tales From the Gulf States. By Zora Neale Hurston. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Site constructed and maintained by Alkahest Designs

Webmaster Josef J Kalicun