Seeing through the looking glass of my life, with all its challenges and difficulties, I cannot escape a basic fact: that my individual existence is thoroughly enmeshed in the life of the collective—not only my immediate family and friends, but also the way that larger institutions and systems shape and give meaning to my life.
Attempting to trace my own “path to bliss” cannot be a self-centered affair. Every individual decision and risk I take reverberates in the life of the collective that supports me. An authentic path, therefore, can never be a question of isolated “personal responsibility.” The very concept of responsibility implies a relation to larger social body and points to the vital connection that the personal bears to the collective. I am responsible for myself to the extent that I am able to respond for the impact of my actions upon others.
Even when the hero—a la Han Solo— believes he is acting purely out of self-interest, the cunning of myth involves him into the larger adventure of the collective unconscious, where the destiny of human kind is at stake. The power of myth works in this waylike a “secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation” (Campbell The Hero of Thousand Faces3). Consequently, the trans-individual nature of the hero’s journey is taken for granted. This “cosmic” relation to the whole gives an individual a sense of belonging to something “larger than myself.” Rather than a deification of myself, it is a movement of de-individuation, as we might call it, a progressive divestment of self, which reflects the archetypal nature of mythology as a manifestation of the collectiveunconscious. Carl Jung himself cannot describe the power of archetypes without highlighting their collective force and origin:
The impact of the archetype, whether it takes the form of immediate experience or is expressed through the spoken word, stirs us because it summons a voice that is stronger than our own. Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthralls and overpowers, while at the same time he lifts the idea he is seeking to express out of the occasional and transitory into the realm of the ever-enduring, he transmutes our personal destiny into the destiny of mankind, and evokes in us all those beneficent forces that ever and anon have enabled humanity to find a refuge from every peril and outlive the longest night. (CW15: 82¶129)
Despite their emphasis upon the individual, both Campbell and Jung cannot help but to stress the collectivity and universality of the archetypal dimension. For it is that “influencer” power that lives through every individual, albeit for the most part unconsciously.
It is interesting to note that when Campbell came across psychologist Abraham Maslow’s list of secular values (“survival, security, personal relationships, prestige, and self-development”), he was struck at once by the fact that these are “the values for which people live when they have nothing to live for”(Pathways to Bliss 86). Although these are precisely the values operating as the ultimate in a capitalistic system, they constitute a soulless path which is designed to maintain the status quo rather than liberate the individual. For the “greatness” of any individual is always drawn from the universal dimension. That is why individualism, which is at the core of these values, far from being a road to “higher consciousness” is a regressive path into the selfishness of nature and the fragmentation of the social body. So Sigmund Freud observed, in as much as egos give in to their natural greed and selfish nature, “every individual is virtually an enemy of civilization” (The Future of an Illusion 6).
In things like survivalism, personalism, and selfish self-development, Campbell immediately discerns precisely the type of values “that a mythically inspired person doesn’t live for, because these are exactly the values that mythology transcends” (Pathways to Bliss 87). And mythology transcends these values simply by being a product of the collective psyche working its way through individuals.
The mythically inspired person thus participates in its collective substance, where individual development becomes the development of the universal self, speaking as it does in acts of cultural creation. The power of myth is just this ability to transmute our private experiences into historic events that bear collective significance. In the last analysis, the historic movement of mythic consciousness expresses the life of the creative spirit that constitutes a people, a nation, or even a species.
As an individual opens up the self to the resources of the collective, it must submit to the rites and symbols of initiation which are designed to tear the individual away from its identification with the narrow familial circle. It is only through a jolt out of the familiar that a new depth of vision opens up. As Mircea Eliade explains it, the fundamental significance of rites and symbols of initiation has little to do with ego-centric self-development:
Initiation introduces the candidate into the human community and into the world of spiritual and cultural values. He learns not only the behavior patterns, the techniques, and the institutions of adults but also the sacred myths and traditions of the tribe, the names of the gods and the history of their works; above all, he learns the mystical relations between the tribe and the supernatural beings as those relations were established at the beginning of time.(Rites and Symbols of Initiation X)
As individuals are “decentered” from their ego-self, they are initiated into a larger context of cultural creation affecting the human community at large. Initiation means a passionate engagement with our collective destiny, accepting the gifts and responsibilities that come from being a grown-up member of society and a creature of our times. This is also why initiation means leaving the state of apolitical innocence that characterizes the child, introducing its consciousness to the universal dimensions of cultural life in the arena of the polis (the “city” as the citizenry).
At this stage of the journey, we may become aware that politics is not external or alien to true myth; nor is it removed from a truly integrated sense of spirituality. Only when caught in an ideological fantasy does the political seem like something alien to authentic spirituality. For the true “life of Spirit,” as Hegel writes, “is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it,” realizing that “[i]t wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself” (Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit19¶32). Accordingly, it is characteristic of this stage of the journey that it should appear as a descent ad inferos where we must confront figures of death-drive in the dark roots of the psyche. Both in puberty rites of initiation and shamanic forms, a dismemberment of the hero does take place at this juncture of the quest. As consciousness is submerged into the chaotic substance of the collective psyche, the “wholeness” of the ego is torn to pieces or deconstructed in order to give way to the archetypal dimension of an individual’s life.
It is for this reason that Campbell describes the Second Act of the Hero’s journey as the phase where “[t]he most difficult stages of the adventure now begin, when the depths of the underworld with their remarkable manifestations open before him. . .” (The Hero of Thousand Faces 91). The opening of the Underworld pulls an individual’s consciousness down into the dark roots of our collective history and its mythic depths. Although it involves a harvesting of our darkness, a deep sense of belonging emerges as a consequence of the descent. An initiation into these realms of memory and oblivion takes us where historic ideas lie buried with our ancestral shades—hence the necessity of blood sacrifice to make the dead speak again.
This is certainly not a journey for the faint of heart; for rather than encouragement or “positive vibes,” we are met with the signs of absolute negativity—the spectral status of psychic inexistence—which characterizes the collective psyche in its “underworld” aspect.
Just as Dante must read over the gates of Hell a message which is designed to ward off wishful thinking or any other form of idealism: “ABANDON EVERY HOPE, WHO ENTER HERE.” In the same way, we must be prepared to meet with a negation of positivism, so dear to ego, as we prepare for this descent. Rather than popular isms, initiation requires that we develop a kind of “negative capability,” which is not only the ability to endure uncertainty and doubt, but also to suffer a kind of metaphysical nakedness. This is why, aware of the deep connection between fear and hope, Virgil explains to Dante the meaning of the cryptic sign over the gates:
“Here one must leave behind all hesitation;
here every cowardice must meet its death.
For we have reached the place of which I spoke,
where you will see the miserable people,
those who have lost the good of the intellect.”
Finally, over against irrationalism or blind faith, the descendental move of initiation requires the good of the intellect. Without it, you are condemned to the “timeless” misery of an underworld shade, a neurotic stagnation of the self in the bliss of ignorance. Going against the anti-intellectual trends of our times, initiation means a break with status quo ideologies, the bliss of ignorance and its crooked path. Such a Descendental journey requires a full intellectual engagement with life and the “crazy” logos of the psyche—its negative self-contradictory psycho-logic—as the life of the world soul.
Campbell, Joseph. Pathways to Bliss. Novato: New World Library, 2004.
——. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.
Eliade, Mircea. Rites and Symbols of Initiation.Connecticut: Spring Publications, 1994.
Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.
Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford UP, 1977.
Jung, Carl Gustav. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. 19 Vols. New York: Princeton UP, 1953.