Thoughts inspired by Rachael A. Vaughan, “Last Traces of the Pagan Imagination: The Cultural Unconscious in British Magical Children’s Books,” Jung Journal: Psyche and Culture 12:3 (Summer 2018): 15-25.
I’m thinking about air. And water. And how the fish never notices the water and we never notice the air, because it is always around us. Always. And it is full of stuff we don’t notice. Lies and truths and everything in between. But we don’t notice because … it’s always there.
Imagine a time before agriculture. Nine thousand years ago. No cultivated land, no fences, no crops, no ownership. Just earth and your ability to gather what you can from it to survive. How would your relationship with that earth be different from the way we live now? Would you not ascribe magic, mysterious powers to the sun, the moon, the changing seasons, the rain, the sky?
Of course you would. We live now not just post-agriculturally, but post-industrially. Things happen we don’t understand and we behave like it’s magic. Few of us really know how computers work, or our phones, or social media. It just does and it’s like magic, and when it doesn’t work we panic and feel deeply, personally offended, and we feel like the gods are mocking us. The Gods of the Silicon Valley.
In Vaughan’s article, she describes how remnants of the magic created to understand the natural world persist today, but we not only don’t understand it, but we don’t even perceive it. It’s just the air. It’s just us. To understand it, to perceive it, we have to work to adapt our consciousness to see our existence as an object, not as a thing becoming, but as a thing that is. But this air is already polluted by all of these motes of lie and superstition and prejudice, as well as truths, many of which are too painful to admit.
Vaughan also describes how universality is part of this mythical world. We live like everything is universal, like we all experience things the same way, but we don’t. Her example is Joseph Campbell’s famous writing on the hero’s journey. Citing Hayao Kawai’s book Japanese Psyche: Major Motifs in the Fairy Tales of Japan, she writes: “The hero’s journey may not be so universal after all: Japanese folk tales, for example, tend to end anticlimactically, with no denouement involving the overcoming of monsters, capturing of treasure, and subsequent triumphant return. Teh hero storyline may be a specifically Western one, and its apparent universality a result either of empire and colonization, or of the cultural assumptions of Jungians in the West, blinded by an ahistorical, universalist focus.”
But this is the air we breath. Western air, where every story requires a hero (usually male) overcoming obstacles on a quest, which (usually) he ultimately achieves.
Or consider this, from Anastasia Basil’s essay “Relax, Ladies. Don’t Be So Uptight. You Know You Want It”: “No one thinks of themselves as a byproduct of a generation. Your parents and grandparents, sure, they’re byproducts. (Exhibit A, your grandmother’s helmet-shaped perm.) But not you. You’re aware of the trends and social attitudes of your generation, but your thoughts, proclivities, and the votes you cast are entirely your own. Or are they? Every generation is a slop-sink of prejudices, norms, and ideologies, and since we humans are more sponge-like than rock-like, we naturally absorb our share of generational sludge. Tobacco-smoke enemas were all the rage in the 18th century. Stomach ache? Heart stalled? Typhoid? Doctors blew smoke up your ass. The United States performed over 40,000 lobotomies between the 1940s and ’50s, more than any other nation.”
So we live in a slop-sink that we don’t see or hear or smell or taste or even acknowledge, until something comes along to make it stop working, and then we are mad. Oh, Lord, how we are mad! We panic and feel deeply, personally offended, and we feel like the gods are mocking us. And that’s when we start looking for others to blame and new stories to tell so that it all starts working again. And sometimes people in power understand this, and they know how to manipulate it and us so that we do their bidding.
But we don’t notice, because that’s the air we’ve always been in.