Back from the Land of the Midnight Sun
Jay Sherry reflects on the relevance of Carl Jung’s ideas for a chaotic world.
With five seasons of The Vikings under my belt and flyers for my just-released book about Jung’s role in transatlantic modernism in my suitcase, I went on a cruise to Norway. I looked for signs of Norse mythology in its landscape of fire and ice and in the giftshops filled with Viking-themed souvenirs that owed more to the Smurfs than to the Eddas. Odin and Thor dominated the statuette shelves with only a single Heimdall and no Loki.
On board ship, there were presentations about mythology and discussions of history. They were usually among educators who expressed concern about the global assault on “truth”; well-financed campaigns of disinformation refuse to adhere to the rules of evidence that is the basis of rational inquiry and decision-making. Mega-media-machines promote the personal agendas of a new generation of authoritarian leaders who fuel the fires of ethnic nationalism, pandering to social prejudice while having their egos stroked by the roar of the crowd.
I would like to consider the views that Jung expressed in “Wotan” (1936) at a similar political moment in European history. To Jung, what was going on in Germany was to be explained as the manifestation of one of the core elements in the Northern psyche, namely the archetype of Odin in his dual role as chieftain-shaman. As chieftain, he is the god-father who presides over Valhalla, the banquet hall for his army of dead warriors preparing for Ragnarök. As shaman, he had sacrificed an eye for wisdom, hanging nine days on the tree. He was kept informed by daily reports from his pair of globe-circling ravens, “Thought” and “Memory.” To aid mankind, he invented the runes that humans adopted for communication and divination.
Jung’s analysis recognized the Nazi appropriation of this mythology but minimized how it was being used to cloak their policies of naked aggression. This soft-pedaling has led to the article being routinely featured as a foundational text on white-power web-sites. Loki, unnamed by Jung and not to be found on the shelf, is alive, well, and now operating on a global scale. To what extent has the internet become a fountain of lies that promise greatness but foreshadow danger? Doubts become dogmas in a polarized landscape where less and less common ground is to be found. Conspiracy theories expressing group fantasies are spun like cotton candy. Options seem to narrow as verbal abuse and violence both real and fantasized fill the void. Are we veering ever closer to a “Mad Maxian” future where everyone will need special ops training just to survive? Hollywood seems to think so. School boards are now debating “hardened” security measures that marginalize more humane, common-sense solutions. What will come next, mandatory gun training for teachers?
Returning to the heart of Carl Jung’s work, we are reminded of the need to consider the modern individual’s relationship to the collective and to interrogate the group fantasies that permeate so much of media culture. He discovered that emotional complexes drive groups as well as individuals. He felt that it was imperative that individual insight into their power be amplified with techniques that put that energy to constructive use since the intellect needs to be enriched by the imagination.
Jay Sherry received his PhD from Freie Universität in Berlin and currently teaches history and psychology at Long Island University, USA. His book Carl Gustav Jung: Avant-Garde Conservative (Palgrave, 2010) received the Gradiva Award. His latest book The Jungian Strand in Transatlantic Modernism is available now.