Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Merging the Emotions with the Intellect

The Roman mythological tale of Amor and Psyche has many meanings because its symbolism can be interpreted on many different levels. The initial interest, which it piqued in me, came directly from the names of the mythological characters, Amor (better known by his Greek name, Eros) and Psyche (a Latin word meaning mind, and a mortal) and the interpretation of them according to Jungian principles.

Basically, the story entails the two falling in love, then being kept apart by Venus (in Greek mythology called Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, and Eros’ mother) because of acts of transgression committed by Psyche. Venus demands Psyche prove her worth through accomplishing a series of impossible tasks. However, Psyche is aided along the way (first by anthropomorphized nature – ants and a talking reed – later, by Zeus’ eagle), and each task is performed to Venus’ consternation. In the final task, Amor, himself, must come to Psyche’s aid and help her to complete it. As a result, Jupiter (Zeus in Greek mythology) blesses the two, unites them in marriage, and transforms Psyche from a mortal into an eternal and divine goddess.

In C. G. Jung’s psychological system, the term eros denoted the essential or primal foundation for feminine psychology. In Volume X of A Guided Tour of the Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Jung wrote, “Women’s psychology is founded on the principle of eros, the great binder and loosener, whereas from ancient times the ruling principle ascribed to men is logos. The concept of eros could be expressed in modern terms as psychic relatedness, and that of logos as objective interest” (255).

Here, Jung is suggesting that the feminine nature is more intuitive and more emotional, whereas the masculine nature is more intellectual and scientific. Now, I guarantee you one can find any number of 20th century feminists who would find fault with this kind of chauvinist stereotyping. I wouldn’t argue with them. Jung might reply that many women employ a masculine nature in getting through life while many men have learned to get in touch with their feminine side, and that he didn’t necessarily mean men and women, just masculine and feminine natures. Whether or not this is true, and ignoring for a moment the historical fact that over countless centuries, cultures all over the world, being male dominated, forced women into roles which would tend to reinforce those gender stereotypes, there is still value to be gained from looking at symbolism and metaphor through Jung’s prism. I suggest one replace the words feminine and masculine with receptive and active respectively if it alleviates the inference of gender biases and stereotypes.

If we look at the respective character roles, the man in the story (or the active principle) is named Eros while the woman (receptive principle) is named Psyche. In other words, the author of this tale has reversed the polarity of each character. This had to have been done for a reason, because even in an antiquity contemporaneous with the tale, the ideas Jung presented were already understood and held as valid. This means that the symbolism intended to infer the kind of bias Jung expressed centuries later. Consequently, it is as if the writer is calling Amor “she” and “her” throughout the narrative and Psyche “he” and “him.”

As we contemplate the narrative of events, Psyche is given numerous tasks to complete. That requires taking an active role. Meanwhile, Amor is kept by Venus in hiding, waiting to receive the love of Psyche if she earns the right to give him her love by accomplishing the tasks assigned to her. As a result, Psyche is held at bay from fruitfully enjoying the pleasures of a loving relationship with her beloved. Amor lies dormant and unfulfilled. Psyche is mortal, or human. Amor is divine, immortal and eternal.

The point the author is conveying in this is greater than the obvious one, that the wedding of mind to emotions is a symbol for bringing together the conscious mind and unconscious mind by bringing the unconscious to the surface where it can be examined by consciousness and demystified. Certainly, there is an element of that as one of the ideas the writer wished to convey in this myth. However, by reversing the roles, he hints at something more than just that.

What the myth really conveys is that each of us has an avenue to becoming a whole person. However, that avenue can only be found by actively engaging the antithesis of one’s nature, by transcending one’s typical role and natural inclinations, and ultimately, by activating all the latent potencies and harmonizing every aspect of one’s being into a unified, complete and cooperatively compatible synthesis of wholeness. In other words, when the woman activates and incorporates her masculine side and the man activates and incorporates his feminine side, then the two can come together and not only imagine an ideal future, but build that future out of their perfected souls.


Shanti Perez said...

Thanks Don. Good read.

Elizabeth M Rimmer said...

An interesting post. The contentious St Paul epistle to Timothy seems to be doing the same thing. Wife is not just to be 'obedient' i.e. robot-like - she is to enter into an intelligent and dialectical relationship with the husband's authority, while the husband is to become nurturing. Odd, and most unexpected!

mira horvich said...

Very interesting analysis. I've never thought of the significance of Amor and Psyche names in the story, beyond the symbolic indication of the emotional and the intellectual. But I agree that the roles are curiously reversed in the story - we have an active female and a passive male and in western culture that's unusual.
It was good to read:)