archetypes r us

Yesterday in my post reviewing Sacred Contracts by Caroline Myss I said that I had much more to say on the topic. Maybe I’ll try to make a start now.

Something I didn’t mention in my review was that for some years I was put off reading Sacred Contracts precisely because it listed so many archetypes. Used to Jung’s short list of psychological archetypes based on his long experience, penetrating insight, and deep learning, I felt that Myss’s “brainstormed”-feeling list was too arbitrary and lightweight. She even suggests that readers can add their own archetypes to the list! How can that be anything but an idle pastime?

Eventually I was able to relax my prejudice and take a chance with the book. Presumably her list of archetypes referred to some different phenomenon than Jung’s list, existing in a different place and functioning in a different way. The big step for me was simply being able to read the book on its own merits.

Also, I had been subjected to other influences, other writers, in the meantime. I’m speaking of the literary critic Northrop Frye and the economist Ludwig von Mises, both of whom make mention of archetypes in connection with literature. Frye regards an archetype as a “communicable symbol”, something that helps one have a cohesive understanding of literature as a whole instead of as a mere jumble of individual works. We can’t read about Moby Dick without being reminded of and affected by whatever we’ve also read about “leviathans and dragons from the deep”. Von Mises makes the point in Human Action that it’s impossible to write history without making use of archetypes, or, as he calls them, “ideal types”. In his own words:

Even when the historian deals with an individual person or with a single event, he cannot avoid referring to ideal types. If he speaks of Napoleon, he must refer to such ideal types as commander, dictator, revolutionary leader; if he deals with the French Revolution he must refer to revolution, disintegration of an established regime, anarchy. All historical events are described and interpreted by means of ideal types.

What he’s saying, in effect, is that every individual thing is a member of a class, or of many classes, and that to make meaningful, coherent statements about it, such as to tell its history, one must choose and connect those different classes in a meaningful way.

As I see it, Aristotle’s logic applies here. The relationship of an individual to its class or its ideal type or its archetype is like the relationship of species to genus. According to Aristotle, the definition of the genus applies to each species (individual member) within it. Thus maple is a species of tree, and everything that’s true of tree as such is true of maple as well. A maple has all the qualities and traits that a tree—the archetypal tree—has.

Back to Myss’s archetypes in Sacred Contracts. What does it mean to say that we individual human beings represent archetypes or have energy relationships with archetypes that exist, in some way, above us (literally, according to Myss, since she says that the archetypes reside in the 8th chakra, which floats about an arm’s length above our heads)? What does it mean to say that I partake of, say, the Artist archetype?

It means that the traits of the archetypal Artist are my traits. The aims, behaviors, interests, and abilities of the archetypal Artist are my aims, behaviors, interests, and abilities—in some degree at least. And what are those traits&#151:what is the definition of this “genus”? From the book:

The Artist embodies the passion to express a dimension of life that is just beyond the five senses in physical forms. The signature of artists is not in what they do but in how intense their motivation is to manifest the extraordinary. Doing what you do in such a way that you create an emotional field that inspires others also indicates the Artist energy at work, as does the emotional and psychological need to express yourself so much that your wellbeing is wrapped up in this energy.

Is this the ultimate definition of what an artist is? No. But it’s perceptive and well said, in my opinion, and gives you plenty to start on in trying to decide whether you embody this archetype in any significant degree. Speaking for myself, I think I do.

Contrast this with another archetype from the book, such as that of, say, Athlete (one that I think applies to my mother, among others). Here’s part of the description of that:

This archetype represents the strength of the human spirit as represented in the power and magnificence of the human body. A code of ethics and morality is associated with the archetype. A person dedicated to transcending the limits of a physical handicap qualifies as much as the professional or artistic athlete.

Even though I have a good, vigorous body and my paternal grandfather was a serious athlete back in Latvia, I don’t have the outlook of an athlete; the Athlete is not one of my archetypes. It was one of his though.

All this by way of saying that I think there’s something to this archetype business from Sacred Contracts—more than something, even. A key point is that we don’t embody only a single archetype, but, according to Myss, at least 12 different ones each. I feel pretty sure that Teacher and Student are both archetypes of mine as well, for example. This means that each of us is a highly specialized cocktail of “ideal types”, with a unique suite of interests, aims, traits, and abilities. According to Caroline Myss, these traits form the toolkit with which we were born in order to fulfill our “sacred contract”.

I have more to say about archetypes and how they connect with storytelling, but that’s for another time.

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