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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Book Review: The Origins and History of Consciousness by Erich Neumann

The Origins and History of Consciousness
by Erich Neumann
Princeton University

       The number one fact you need to know about The Origin and History of Consciousness by Erich Neumann is that the author is a disciple of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist.  Carl Jung was the creator of analytical psychology or “Jungian psychology.”  Jung’s theories revolved around the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious, and he theorized that human behavior was largely governed by the influence of ideas that live deep within the human unconscious. Jung called these ideas “archetypes” and his theory has had a huge influence on artists in the 20th century.  It’s hard to look at a Picasso painting without seeing Jung’s influence.  Similarly, entire areas of other social sciences: Sociology, Anthropology were deeply influenced by Jung’s ideas about the common themes of man’s unconscious.

            Neumann take it upon himself to add flesh to the bones of Jung’s theory about universal archetypes.  That universality is best symbolized by the Uroboros or “serpent that bites it’s tail.”  Neurmann hypothesizes that this symbol is the THE original symbol of human culture.  This argument is very closely linked to the theories first articulated by J.J Bachofen, published in the United States as Myth, Religion and Mother Right.  Bachofen, writing in the late 19th century, claimed that matriarchal culture precedes patriarchal culture, linking the first religion to the agricultural settlements of the Middle East.  Fifty years on from Neumann and more then a hundred from Bachofen the idea of matriarchal “original religion” has lost none of it’s hold on the imagination but further research has proved this idea false.  The main mistake in the “mother right” theory is to assume that human religion began with agricultural settlements in the Middle East around the fourth millennium.   It now appears that human culture extends far beyond agricultural settlements, and in fact that humans had culture and religion prior to forming permanent settlements.

            Regardless of the accuracy of Jung and his followers, the sheer power of his ideas and their influence on artists and other thinkers makes a thorough investigation of Jung’s thought worth the effort.  It’s not a body of thought that is particularly fashionable at the moment, but the whole point is that Jung is oriented to the Universal, so thinking about the relationship between the artist and the audience, it makes sense that you want to incorporate universal themes if possible.

            The meat of Neurmann’s thesis is that there is a deep and abiding link between the  shared experiences of our ancestors and the personality of individuals.  The very idea of our unconscious steering our personalities may seem  comical in an era of anti-depressants and increased knowledge about brain chemistry, but perhaps the enduring value of thinkers like Jung and Neumann is in their discussion of the group psychology of ancient and pre-historical cultures.  Neumann analyzing the symbolism of ancient civilizations in terms of the relationship between parents and children.  In Neumann’s view, the original concern of human culture was fertility: fertility of women, and fertility of the fields.  Neumann believes that the original religion was the worship of a fearsome Mother Goddess that required blood (mentral, sacrifical) for the annual renewal of fertility.

            In making his analysis Neumann leans heavily on examples taken from Ancient Egypt.  Here, his accuracy is hampered by subsequent developments in Assyrianology, namely, the translation of voluminous texts from Mesopotamian and Indo European civilizations.  Placed in context against other ancient civilization, the Egyptian religion does seem particularly oriented towards the kind of theories that Neumann endorses, but you only have to shift to the Hittites, who were younger but still contemporaneous with the Egyptian religion Neurmann draws from, to see a more male oriented culture less oriented towards feminine fertility rituals.

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