Much excitement at allumination this week, as my last big post – the Olson / Lovecraft one – has been picked up on by the international poetry world. Greetings, new readers from just about everywhere! I hope you’re enjoying the unholy poetry / weirdness blend that goes on here.
Some personal poetic excitement as well, as – while attending the most excellent Avantgarde Festival – I’ve been deep in the most excellent ‘Late Modernist Poetics from Pound to Prynne’. Well, it seemed like the right place to read something like that…
Anyway, it’s a ferociously enjoyable book, and a really valuable combination of deep reading of Pound, Olson and Prynne and debunking of their windier / ethically dubious / just plain incoherent moments. It also casts fascinating light on (amongst other things) Jung’s contribution to mid / late 20th century avant garde thinking.
More on the details of that contribution another time; what intrigued me was how interesting it is to look at Jung through the lens of Farah Mendlesohn’s superb recent book, ‘Rhetorics of Fantasy’.
In RoF, Farah develops a really interesting (and very constructive) taxonomy of fantasy. She defines the portal-quest fantasy, the immersive fantasy, the intrusion fantasy, the liminal fantasy and then various irregulars. The book has been discussed in detail elsewhere – for example, here by John Clute – so I’m not going to summarise it again, but rather home in on one of Farah’s categories – the portal quest. And, instead of using it to think about fantastic fiction, I’m going to use it ponder Jung.
Understanding Jung’s work as a component of a portal quest world view leads to some really interesting insights about the deeper implications of his project. But what’s a portal quest fantasy? For Farah, at the most basic level,
‘a portal fantasy is simply a fantastic world entered through a portal. The classic portal fantasy is of course The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe… They are almost always quest novels and they almost always proceed in a linear fashion with a goal that must be met.’
Paraphrasing, they demand reader identification with a naïve protagonist who’s learning the ways of a strange new world – ‘the portal fantasy must be navigated’, and we share, empathise with, and learn the world through that navigation – a process of ‘entry, transition and negotiation’. The end of navigation is – as a rule – some kind of fated or predestined world changing event:
‘portal fantasies lead us gradually to the point where the protagonist knows his or her world enough to change it and enter into that world’s destiny.’
Farah gives various examples of the pq fantasy, including The Lord of the Rings, The Neverending Story, the various Oz books, and reaching all the way back to The Pilgrim’s Process. And – of course – Jung’s oeuvre can be read as a portal quest, or rather supporting a portal quest world view.
He posits a strange new world – the various levels of the subconscious – that we can all step into, populated by strange and interesting new characters – the archetypes – and structured at a deeper level around various mysterious but immutable image- and narrative-sets derived from the Euro / global alchemical tradition, plus various related forms of mysticism.
He sets himself up as guide to these strange new realms, and through his work aspires to help us develop, sustain and resolve our own quest within them; that is, to navigate them, achieve understanding of them and of our pre-destined role within them, and through that to reconcile oppositions and achieve a kind of personal transcendence.
He defined that personal transcendence as ‘individuation’, the resolution of conflicting opposites within the personality, and saw that it would lead to a radical alteration of our selves, our understanding of the deeper worlds of our personal subconsciouses, and through that those worlds themselves.
As in a classic pq fantasy, we begin as naïve protagonists, we achieve ‘entry, transition and negotiation’, moving ‘in a linear fashion with a goal that must be met’, and finally we come to ‘know [our subconscious] enough to change it and enter into that world’s destiny’; that is, to reconcile opposites, uncover the true external, personal destiny implied by the totality of an individuated consciousness, and achieve that destiny with the support of a fully resolved subconscious world / personality in general.
So, Jungian thinking about the self can be read as creating a portal quest fantasy for the self to move through, in search of a very real, very beneficial goal. But that’s not an unmixed good; and Farah is fascinating on exactly why that is.
The process of de-familiarisation and re-familiarisation that she describes is, as noted above, built around a sequence of exploratory actions in pursuit of a certain, clearly defined goal. And, as a rule, that goal is usually externally defined, and the terms of that goal condition and define the protagonist’s engagement with everyone that he or she meets along the way. They’re either helpful (good) or unhelpful (bad); that’s it for moral judgement, while more nuanced understandings of the personalities of those encountered are rendered impossibly by the need to relate with them exclusively in terms of the level of support / not-support they’re giving.
Mapped onto Jung, that gives us an interesting way of understanding archetype theory. Seen as portal quest components, archetypal definitions of others represent a shorthand for understanding them entirely in terms of their relationship to the Jung-defined quest. Rather than supporting a closer engagement with the root structures of reality (as Jung and his cohorts would no doubt claim), they in fact alienate the Jungian subject from anything more than a deeply superficial engagement with the entities surrounding him or her.
In portal quests, that kind of reductiveness also applies to the world travelled through; as a stranger in a strange land, the protagonist is by definition entirely dependent on the world-definitions of their guide. Those definitions tend to be pretty absolute (think of Gandalf’s sense of the evil of Sauron, or the way that the Wicked Witch of the East is presented in ‘The Wizard of Oz’), and pretty non-negotiable; as Farah puts it, discussing portal quest subsets:
‘The epic and the traveler’s tale are closed narratives. Each demands that we accept the interpretation of the narrator, and the interpretative position of the hero.’
Jung seeks to involve us in a single fixed narrative of which he is the narrator; as the hero of that narrative, we have a radically limited set of possible positive actions available to us. The goodness or badness of those actions is non-negotiable. Moving through Jung’s understanding of the subconscious, towards individuation, involved us in a narrative just as closed as that of any generic fantasy quest.
Implicit in the creation of a closed narrative is an absolute need for the narrator to be right, for their understanding of the world (as expressed in the narrative) to be uncontestable. Farah notes what this leads to:
‘in order to convince, to avoid too close analysis, the portal and quest fantasies attempt to convince through the accumulation of detail.’
That is, the closed narrative structures of a pq fantasy are covered over / held up by a mass of supporting detail, all deployed to convince us of the depth of knowledge and therefore the infallibility of the narrator. And that’s a game Jung plays, too, whether he’s deploying case studies or (in his later books) huge chunks of alchemical and related information.
The detail isn’t there to support the argument he’s making; rather, it exists to make it seem incontestable, an output of a world where every accessible point of information demonstrates the truth of the Jung hypothesis, and where that hypothesis itself is seen not as one more argument in a broader, polysemic set of discourses, but rather as a final, irrefutable outcome of an incontestable, almost omniscient seeing of all the detail of the world. Apparently rational, it in fact defeats rationality by burying logic beneath a flood of impressive, apparently global and disinterested but in fact carefully selected and very partial data.
There’s much more that can be teased out of this; I’ve only touched the surface of Farah’s sense of what a portal quest is, and how that can be used to tease out the more hidden, controlling components of Jung’s project (and by extension, any other vatic guru who builds his thought around a similarly omni-applicable worldview). Returning to the Mellors book I mentioned earlier, I think it’s going to be very interesting to feed Olson, Pound and Prynne, and their respective poetic cults through all of this. There’s some fascinating pondering to be done about political narratives, too; the portal quest narrative is a classic colonial narrative, as the other is encountered and engaged with from a purely self-centred perspective. And of course, there’s the whole of the rest of the book to be talking about, too.
But for now, it’s Friday night, and I’ve got a curry on the stove and H has just come over, and we’re going to sit down and watch Kolchak DVDs and chill out. So, bon weekend a tous!