A prominent psychologist, knitting together the elements of Jung's
psychological theory and some new elements of his own, shows how the
great cycles of world myth depict the hard-won development of
ego-consciousness in humanity, and how this development is recapitulated
in each individual's life.
Twenty-six years ago, when I first
read this book, Jung's ideas were much more popular than they are now.
In this era of cognitive science and its focus on the physiological
underpinnings of psychology, there doesn't seem to be room for Jung's
collective unconscious, its archetypes, and their polymorphous
manifestations in myth and symbol. But this, I think, is more a matter
of fashion than any reflection on the quality of Jung's thinking, which
was vast, deep, and bold.
Neumann, a student of Jung, with
erudition comparable to that of his teacher, synthesizes Jung's ideas
into a unified theory of psychology around his own new concept of
"centroversion", his name for the integrative force of the organism--its
survival instinct in the widest sense. He shows how
ego-consciousness--the self-aware "I" of the modern human being--is the
preeminent organ of centroversion, and that, like other, physical,
organs, it has had its own evolutionary history.
reflected in the structure and behavior of the modern ego, forms the
deep story underlying world mythology. In Part I of the book, Neumann
shows how the birth and emancipation of the ego is reflected in three
great cycles of myth: the creation myth, the hero myth, and what he
calls the transformation myth, which is the apotheosis of the hero. The
primordial mythological image is that of the "uroboros"--the serpent
biting its own tail, symbolizing the womblike plenum of the unconscious,
in which consciousness exists only as a potential. It flickers in and
out of existence, almost like the virtual particles of modern nuclear
physics. As the germ of consciousness gains strength, it comes to see
the nurturing womb of the unconscious in the symbol of the Great Mother.
The moment of the ego's realization of its own autonomous existence is
mythologized as the Separation of the World Parents--a universal motif,
in which the hero creates the manifest world by pushing his parents
apart to form Heaven and Earth.
Next come the hero myths: the
birth of the hero and his struggle with the dragon, which represents the
negative aspects of both Mother and Father. Neumann shows how the great
myth of the dragon, hoarding its treasure and holding a princess
captive, has a deep and precise meaning for the development of
Then, as though all that were not enough, he moves
on to Part II: a discussion of the developmental stages of the
inidividual ego in light of its symbolic development in human culture.
Each of us, man and woman, undergoes these mythological dramas in our
quest for consciousness and identity, with the climaxes of the struggle
representing the familiar crises of development at characteristic ages.
concludes with a shorter examination of the crisis of modern Western
man, which he sees as a symptom of the overemphasis of ego-consciousness
at the expense of its relationship with the life-giving unconscious,
resulting in a split between them. The results, he thinks, can only be
disastrous, and we have seen some of them in the world calamities of the
It's hard to give a sense of the tremendous reach
of this book. In this respect it has few peers. As I read it this time I
thought it would make an admirable companion-volume to Joseph
Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces", published in the same year,
I have no real criticisms of this book. Some contemporary
readers might take exception to Neumann's approach to the masculine and
the feminine in psychology, since these terms have become so charged.
But the function and role, indeed the very definition and origin of
masculine and feminine--which are aspects of everyone's psyche--are not
taken for granted here; on the contrary, they are among the phenomena he
examines and explains. In a real sense, he is saying that consciousness
was born of the great polarity of masculine and feminine, and I find it
exciting to imagine what the next turns in that great drama might be.
also takes some trouble, here and there, to point out what he regards
as the errors of Freudian psychology, and shows many Freudian concepts,
such as the Oedipus complex, to be special cases of more general
principles that he explains. In general he is dismissive of Freudian
Perhaps the highest praise for Neumann's work comes
in Jung's foreword to the book, in which the great psychologist
expresses what amounts to envy for Neumann's achievement. For Neumann
has taken the ideas developed by Jung over decades of observation and
research, and fashioned a single, synthetic whole that illuminates the
very core of our inmost being, both as individuals and as a race. He has
brought together psychology and mythology more completely and more
convincingly than any other writer I've encountered.