Last night I dreamt that a large steam roller was on course to crush the paving stones in front of my house with the prospect of taking out most of the arborvitae and blooming hydrangeas. I stood in front of this machine, right hand raised in Tiananmen Square style, warning the driver about the consequences of his actions while he was talking some gibberish to a cab full of men with big yellow hair, grotesque lips and skin that looked as if it had been powdered by the most accomplished of hands.
Psychologist Carl Jung and many others have warned of embracing dreams as if they had been sent from god and therefore wrapped in divinity. The prophet Jeremiah had similar advice to his biblical crowd. So I’ll be cautious. Anyway, I’m too much of a coward to stand in front of steam rollers in my face or tanks on the move. In that spirit: apologies to my friends in Beijing.
For a moment, I will let the above dream hang like a dangerous motif over my circumspect narrative. Like many in America, I have watched the current political circus with mixed emotions, sometimes feeling if I have been suffering through the seven stages of grief but being stuck in the shock and denial phase for months, especially when it comes to Donald Trump’s primitive and incendiary language. I have followed closely like a stricken lover the words and phrases the media uses to describe this contagion including the evergreen, “I have no words.”
I think there is considerable truth to this, although, as I will suggest in a moment, there are words to describe this eruption, but they come from a more primitive place that our subject/verb construct doesn’t easily capture. But, after being in the media business for almost forty years, I should say the obvious: it was advertising revenues or CPM tied to growing television audiences that drove the Trump phenomenon. In a speech in San Francisco in March, CBS Chairman and CEO Les Moonves said it was a terrible thing to say but Trump was great for business. He encouraged Trump to keep going, presumably with his flame throwing. The Moonves “Trump Bump” has become the media’s business and operating plan for close to a year.
By and large, the television journalists I’ve watched seemed to have climbed aboard this bandwagon. I don’t know for sure, but I can imagine the business side executives at the morning shows telling the anchors to let Trump and lesser lights call in whenever they liked. And please, remember this is theater rather than hard news; it’s what our views want. I’ve been part of the editorial/advertising dance often enough and little would surprise me.
Let me be clear. I have been drawn to “The Atlantic” and other digital sites for articles that use basic psychological concepts to explain the current political zeitgeist. Newspapers such as “The Washington Post” have been prescient at times. All are helpful. I have a better understand of Trump the Narcissist and why a large slice of the white population is saying bugger all to the political establishment. I understand this but the noise, resentment and anger seems to be coming from a deeper, archetypal place that sounds and smells a lot like that festering swamp called the unconscious, whether personal or collective. Either way, when ignored or embraced as raw energy, there will be eruptions.
I am not a psychologist. I have a PhD in Philosophy. I have studied Jungian or archetypal psychology for more than twenty years.
Carl Jung put “complexes” at the center of what he called his “complex psychology,” with a complex residing in the unconscious and manifesting itself in feelings, beliefs, fantasies, pathologies, and even religious practices. Jung found evidence of complexes when he conducted word association tests and built on those findings. We have him to thank for the lie detector test.
Jung and others have shown that people often use words to conceal their thoughts and true intentions. Jung’s word association test reveals, often comically, that people use words like fine, marvelous, grand, splendid and great to cover up their total lack of interest in or knowledge about a subject or to hold the object at arm’s length.
In his “The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche” Jung writes that the word association test is of general interest in that, like no other psychological test of comparable simplicity, the subject is asked to respond to a single word that often reveals unconscious forces and disturbances. When a word triggers these unconscious forces, a person is said to be “constellated,” which Jung describes as an automatic process that happens involuntarily and which no one can stop of his own accord. In Jung’s words, “The constellated contents are definite complexes possessing their own specific energy.” The psychologist notes that people can identify with and be seized by a complex. This state can be minor, such as a slip of the tongue or when we say, “So what’s gotten into him today?” Or this state could be major, such as when I act demonic and wave a gun in the face of a family member.
Other psychologists had explored complexes, but Jung focused on them within a pattern of behavior called archetypes. The key point for Jung was that a feeling-toned complex is autonomous and therefore operates outside of our conscious will. The complex behaves like a foreign body in our sphere of consciousness. Behavior relating to a complex is usually irrational, compulsive, biased, subjective and prejudicial. Jung suggested that complexes can disrupt memory and thinking. The complex, the slogan, the idea, the mission, the big word and belief is overpowering. Nothing will get in the way of this complex that is fed by unconscious forces that are not sufficiently recognized and reigned in.
My daily media diet is more digestible if I think about most of the political, cultural and social reports as largely a product of feeling-toned complexes being played out in the public square as if they are gifts from god and therefore blessed. Perhaps I’m simply weary of hearing how “Great” everything is going to be.
Yes, I know. It is folly to psychoanalyze a culture even if it’s just to get a good night’s sleep. I will concede that much but remain hard-pressed to explain all the eruptions in the present circus called American Life except to suggest that the collective unconscious has taken over parts of the public square and those barbs aimed at me on social media are coming from some precious, deeply held, feeling-toned complex.
Let me provide a modest example. I am minding my own business, adding a note to the White House FB page in support of smart-gun technology. I explained that I am a veteran, a hunter, and had done business in thirty countries, the latter point to underscore I have never seen the fascination with the gun that we have in America. I mentioned that I had written “The Archetype of the Gun,” a book-length poem about the mythological, psychological and religious underpinnings of gun love.
The trolls arrived on schedule and the flame-throwing began. People demanded my unit, service number and region served. I am without honor, a liar, and in the stolen valor game. I’m a pussy because I’m a poet. And who the hell travels to thirty countries? What’s my passport number and travel schedule? A little voice in my head tells me that the gun in America is a huge bloody complex, autonomous and deadly.
My only response was to refer my fan club to my “USS Bunker Kills: A Sea Story,” a novel about the time I didn’t spend in the Navy. But little humor resides inside a feeling-toned complex. Now I am an impostor, a rank plagiarist and a seeker of fame. If I wrote a novel, it must suck. In any event, I suck.
Perhaps we are at that cryptic point in our culture where guns, bathrooms and personal gods, all powerful voices that deserve a place in the word-association test, are the order of the day and necessarily give rise to feeling-toned complexes and irrational behavior on a national scale. Perhaps without the amplification of social media with its masks, personas and feeling-toned triggers in terms of technology and a 360 degree response, many of the eruptions might be restricted to postal zones.
During the Republican primary campaign the playbook, especially on Trump’s part, seemed to be an endless, feeling-toned complex played out in prime time to the befuddlement of interviewers and the amusement of the populace. It was all about dicks, hands and blood flowing from Megan Kelly as if from some unseemly and untidy orifice, some horror that was not repressed. Everyone lapped it up. Ask Trump a pointed question and he’d respond with those protean words like “Huge,” “Great,” “Wonderful,” etc. as if he had been a student of Jung all along.
Of course, this is a mix of play, personae and those autonomous devils that take him over from time-to-time, and then the man is tongue-tied, contradictory, befuddled and outrageous. That’s what happens when the unconscious shows up in the middle of a million dollar interview, such as when Trump was asked about criminalizing abortions. Perhaps this is the reason that so much of what Trump says is walked back within minutes or hours by a spokesperson.
Some psychologists have argued that without complexes, the world would be a very dull place indeed. I suspect we won’t have to worry about that, at least not for the rest of this political, cultural and religious cycle. The unconscious seems to have an unsteady hand on the national tiller. Trump seems a walking, talking feeling-toned complex who is able to tap the autonomous energies constellated in his supporters.
Perhaps the steam roller metaphor makes sense after all.