Carl Jung and the Collective Unconscious


Jung provides theorists and critics with a source for the myths and plots common across various literary traditions. He does this with his concept of the universal symbol. For Jung a symbol is an imitation of a meaning beyond our levels of articulation. It is the representation of an idea inherent in man’s mind which must be represented because it is beyond man’s means of explanation. It is the expression of something unspeakable. Symbols (or archetypes) make up the collective unconscious.

The collective unconscious is a part of every human mind. It is that part of the human mind common among all people; it unites humanity. This collective unconscious contains all shared, transcendent ideas, or archetypes. Archetypes include figures, concepts, myths, events and symbols that repeat throughout human history because they are ingrained in the human psyche.

Although mankind is unaware of this collective unconscious (hence “unconscious”), archetypes arise from it in the art than mankind produces. (This art includes literature.) According to Jung, art is the product of man, but that doesn’t mean that art reveals the characteristics of any one individual. Instead, art presents archetypes that men unconsciously reveal through it. These archetypes exist underneath the surface of a person’s awareness.

Man produces art in one of two ways. The first process Jung calls “introverted.” Within this type the artist controls the meaning behind his art. He fully realizes his creation, and his intentions present themselves in the work. Jung paid more attention, however, to the second process, which he labeled “extroverted.” It describes the phenomena of divine inspiration. This artistic process acts on the artist and he becomes a “reacting subject.” Ideas from the collective unconscious emerge through the unknowing and sometimes reluctant individual in creative forms.

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The extroverted mode of creativity implies that the artist creates his work because of some divine will. It is a romantic notion, the product of which is work with symbols that are, at the time, obscure. Societies often discover the meanings of these works of art much later, when those meanings become relevant.

It is within this second artistic process that the intentional fallacy occurs. Because the artist is unconscious of the meaning behind his art, his art means more than he ever intended. When society rediscovers an artist’s work to find that it is laden with overlooked meaning, it is because society has caught up with some universal idea that emerged through the artist. When this occurs, society has surpassed former levels of comprehension and discovered a previously unrealized archetype. That archetype is new to society consciously, but it existed in the collective unconscious all along.

Using the above ideas, Jung explains how art benefits humanity. He says it provides societies with a familiar archetype when they need one. Humans don’t always realize when archetypes present themselves because these archetypes are second nature to them, even though they don’t know it. (You can’t seem the “big picture” when you are a part of the “big picture.”) Still, the familiarity and unification that archetypes in art provide ease humanity’s strife.

Jung’s views regarding psychology and art provide critics with both a reason for the source of art and an explanation of how art aids humanity. With this explanation the critic can explore archetypes in art and analyze why specific archetypes spring from the unconscious at certain times and in certain places. For example, they can investigate why a novel like Dracula emerged at the turn of the century in Europe. They can discover what the archetypes found in the book imply about society in that place at that time.