Wednesday, January 30, 2008



Jungian Semiotics



Perhaps Carl Jung gives us the best possibility of making something worthwhile out of the current rather arid state of Saussaurean and Piercean semiotics. The basic idea is fine: human beings live in a context of signs and symbiology which must be recognised and interpreted for us to live meaningful lives. Problems emerge when the deep-rooted significance of signs and their importance are examined. For the father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, human language was itself a set of signs and symbols through which we viewed the world: though there was no necessary connection between the real world and the concepts in our mind that were merely an interpretation of it. For Saussure, the connection between the signifier and the signified was "arbitrary". This is to say the signs we used to describe the world, including language, had no necessary logical connection with reality. "Cat" could just as easily mean "mountain" as a small furry domestic animal. In other words, the symbols and signs we use on an everyday basis are given meaning only by ourselves and have no significance outside of their collectively perceived meaning. Now this is a rather dry and soulless interpretation of symbiology and signs: the world is full of signs and symbols that have been created and given meaning only by ourselves. It is at this difficult point that Carl Jung's ideas can possibly begin to help us--though only if we are prepared to accept that there are aspects of existence that we simply don't understand very well.

Many of Jung's ideas and concepts have established themselves in "the collective unconscious" to use one of the Swiss psychologists most famous ideas. Jung also introduced the ideas of "introvert" and "extravert", "archetypes", feminine and masculine sides to the personality, "synchronicity", "mid-life crisis" and gender ruled by "Logos" and "Eros". He even referred to the "dark side" of the human psyche--an idea picked up by George Lucas in his "Star Wars" movies. This idea of the human psyche having a "dark side" that would prove hugely destructive if not acknowledged and controlled, provides one connecting point between Jung's ideas and modern semiotics--and points to ways in which Jungian psychology may enrich our present view of semiotics.

For Jung, modern humans lived in a particularly difficult world. The foundations of Christianity had been blasted asunder by science and modern man, unlike his ancestors, lived in a world dedicated to science and reason. However, the problem was that man was only "reasonable" up to a certain point. Like Nietzsche before him, Jung believed that in order to find peace, man had to give up at least a part of his reliance on reason and accept "the dark side" of his personality. The dark side was irrational, but also the place where creativity and instinctual knowledge was born. Man had insisted on "goodness" and "light" too exclusively for too long. Jung saw this as a dichotomy between man's "Appollonian side" dedicated to higher reason and knowledge and his "Dionysian" side dependent on the irrational and symbols. If this latter aspect of man's psyche went unacknowledged for too long it did untold harm in the individual and collective unconscious of man, resulting in brutal wars of aggression that allowed us to express our inner demons in a cathartic way that could be sanctioned by society through "projection". "Projection" for Jung was the way in which the anger of men could be channelled against other men by believing one side was right and the other wrong. It was his belief that suppressed primitiveness was the cause of much mental illness as well as those periodic orgies of violence that mankind regularly indulged in (and of course, Jung lived through both world wars). Jung was sure that unless modern man accepted the dark and irrational elements in his own nature then eventually he was sure to destroy himself in a paroxysm of violence. It is interesting to recall Yeat's poem, "The Second Coming" in this context:

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

This is surely the finest poem of the 20th century just because it so effectively tunes into the symbiology of the times. In Jungian terms, the "rough beast" would be the dark side of humanity that has been denied adequate expression for so long and now is about to wreak its consequent havoc on the "reasonable" civilization that denied its existence or only saw it active in others (rather than as being present in the unconscious of all men). According to Jung, the apocalyptic disaster foretold so eerily and well by Yeats, could still be avoided if man accepted that the modern age did not give him sufficient spiritual sustenance: and for Jung, man was above all a spiritual creature:

"Since the stars have fallen from heaven and our highest symbols have paled, a secret life holds sway in the unconscious. That is why we have psychology today, and why we speak of the unconscious. All this would be quite superfluous in an age or culture that possessed symbols. Symbols are spirit from above, and under those conditions the spirit is above too...Our unconscious...hides living water, spirit that has become nature, and that is why it is disturbed. Heaven has become for us the cosmic space of the physicists and the divine empyrean a fair memory of things that once were. But 'the heart glows' and a secret unrest gnaws at the roots of our being."

(Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious)

Specfically on man and his need for symbols and a cause greater than himself, Jung says the following:

"Everything is banal, everything is 'nothing but'; and that is the reason why people are neurotic. They are simply sick of the whole thing, sick of the banal life, and therefore they want sensation. They even want a war; they all want a war. They are all glad when there is a war; they say, 'Thank heaven, now something is going to happen--something bigger than ourselves.

These things go pretty deep, and no wonder people get neurotic. Life is too rational, there is no symbolic existence in which I am something else, in which I am fulfilling my role, my role as one of the actors in the divine drama of life... That gives peace, when people feel that they are living the symbolic life, that they are actors in a divine drama. That gives the only meaning to human life; everything else is banal and you can dismiss it. A career, producing children, are all maya compared with that one thing, that your life is meaningful...But we cannot turn the wheel backwards; we cannot go back to the symbolism that is gone. Doubt has killed it, has devoured it...I cannot experience the miracle of the Mass...It is no more true to me...Dreams were the original guidance of man in the great darkness...When a man is in the wilderness the darkness brings the dreams--somnia a Deo missa--that guide him. It has always been so. I have not been led by any kind of wisdom; I have been led by dreams, like any primitive. When you are in the darkness you take the next thing, and that is a dream. And you can be sure that the dream is your nearest friend; the dream is the friend of those who are not guided any more by the traditional truth and in consequence are isolated."

(The Symbolic Life)

Most importantly, for Jung man was "Homo Religiosus": he needed religion for the welfare of his psyche and in the modern atheistic world the absence of religion and religious symbols led inevitably to mental illness:

"During the past thirty years, people from all the civilized countries of the earth have consulted me. Many hundreds of patients have passed through my hands, the greater number being Protestants, a lesser number Jews, and not more than 5 or 6 believing Catholics. Among all my patients in the second half of life--that is to say over 35--there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook. This of course has nothing whatever to do with a particular creed or membership of a church."

(Psychotherapists or the Clergy)

Jung's own view of religion is obscure. His work concentrated more on the need for some spiritual reality in human life and he did not prefer one creed over another (though interestingly, he did advise against a too easy acceptance of Eastern traditions by people from the West). He did, however, insist on the importance of ritual in the sacred life. From time immemorial, man has marked the change of seasons and the cycle of birth and death with various propitiation ceremonies full of symbolic acts. It was this symbolism that put him in touch with nature and himself--and it is precisely this quality that has been lost in our modern world. One might say that any religion that was full of symbolism would be appropriate to man's spiritual salvation. Jung himself (like Wittgenstein) toyed with the idea of joining the Catholic church because he admired its rich symbolism. His idea was that one could give a symbolic meaning to everything that the clergy insisted was literally true. After a while, however, he dropped the idea--no doubt disillusioned by the rigidity of the church to accept his symbolic meanings. We do know that two childhood experiences greatly influenced the views of the grown man. In the first, he dreamt that he was looking down into a rectangular hole in the ground with a flight of steps leading down. He descended these steps and in a subterranean room he viewed a giant phallus sat on a majestic throne. At the tip of the phallus a single eye looked unblinkingly upwards. Later, Jung described the dream as a vision of how man has sanitised religion and concentrated on the light to such an extent that he has ignored God's terrible aspect and the dark side of himself. This has led to the collapse of belief and now God must find a new way to recreate himself--from below so to speak. The second vision (not a dream this time) is in some ways even more shocking. The adolescent Jung was looking at his town's cathedral when he had a vision of God sat in splendour on a throne, directly above the cathedral. Suddenly a turd dropped from the throne and fell on the cathedral destroying it completely. Jung interpreted this as meaning that the divine spirit was unhappy with the interpretation of him given by his followers. He was a two-sided God of light and darkness and not the anaemic creature that existed in conventional religious texts.

This has been a mere introduction to some of Jung's ideas on symbols. However, it seems to me that a researcher genuinely interested in semiotics can find a rich world of symbols and ideas in the works of Jung that could deepen and make more profound the, at present, somewhat anaemic study of signs and symbols that is semiotics.

3 Comments:

Blogger ely said...

A very interesting synthesis.

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks alot

4:44 AM  
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