Now, this topic of living your own, personal myth–finding it, learning what it is, in writing on it–first occurred to me when I read Jung’s autobiographical work Memories, Dreams, Reflections. In one passage, he described a crisis in his own life. In 1911–12, Jung was working on his seminal book The Symbols of Transformation.
He was tremendously upset at that time because he had come to feel that all of his earlier work had been on the basis of a superficial understanding of the psychology of his deeply psychotic patients. He had begun his career working at the Burghölzli sanitarium in Zürich under Eugene Bleuler. Bleuler was the man who coined the term schizophrenia, and a great many of the patients in his sanitarium were, in fact, schizophrenic.
It was after he had worked there for some time and had already received his doctorate under Bleuler that Jung became acquainted with Freud. Now, Freud’s principal concern was with the neurotics. A neurotic is a person who is still functioning in the world with a working, conscious orientation to life, but who is troubled by an inadequate relationship to the unconscious system. A psychotic, on the other hand, is someone who is cracked off entirely. And Jung, working with the psychotics, had become pretty well acquainted with what might be called the archetypology of unconscious imagination.
He began reading books on comparative myth: Frobenius, Bastian, Frazer. The realization came to him that the imagery that his patients were finding welling up from their own psyches was precisely that with which the world of comparative mythologies and their history of religion studies were already familiar. The imagery of his patients’ fantasizing showed precise parallels to mythological themes. Jung then noticed that the parallels held true not only with psychotics but with neurotics and with relatively well-balanced people as well.
This discovery impressed him tremendously and motivated him to immerse himself in the study of mythology. Symbols of Transformation, which deals with the interrelationship between dream consciousness and the mythological consciousness of visions, was the very book that made it impossible for Freud to work with Jung anymore. It made it clear that Jung no longer believed that sex was the beginning, middle, and end of the subconscious symbolic system, and that regressive psychoanalysis was the only therapy. To Freud and his followers, this was anathema.
When Jung finished this book, it did not mark the end of his insights on the topic. “Hardly had I finished the manuscript,” he says in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, “when it struck me what it means to live with the myth, and what it means to live without one. . . .” It occurred to him to ask himself by what myths he himself was living, and he realized he did not know. “So, in the most natural way, I took it upon myself to get to know my myth, and this I regarded as my task of tasks.”
It’s my belief that there is no longer a single mythology operating for everybody in any one country, let alone across Western civilization. It’s my notion that the social order today is essentially secular in character. It does not claim its laws to have been divinely given. We don’t explain our laws in mythological terms. In the old days, the laws were delivered by God to Moses and laid out in the Books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus. We don’t have that. Even the laws of the physical universe, as I said, are less than fixed. We don’t know. We keep finding out new things about it, but we don’t have a deliberate image of the universe that’s going to stick for very long.
With respect to the development of each individual psychology, we have such varied sources from which we’ve come in such varied opportunities in our lives that there is no single mythology that can have it for us. My belief is that within the field of a secular society, which is a sort of neutral frame that allows individuals to develop their own lives, so long as they don’t annoy their neighbors too much, each of us has an individual myth that’s driving us, which we may or may not know. That was the sense of Jung’s question: what is the myth by which I am living?
I don’t think that there is going to be anything like a unified mythology for mankind for a long time, if there ever is again. I think that our social life–that coveted by the third function of myth–is now being handled in another, better way. I think, however, that the individual is left without a sense of his conscious and unconscious in communication with each other.
Mythological images are the images by which the consciousness is put in touch with the unconscious. That’s what they are. When you don’t have your mythological images, or when your consciousness rejects them for some reason or other, you are out of touch with your own deepest part. I think that’s the purpose of a mythology that we can live by. We have to find the one that we are in fact living by and know what it is so that we can direct our craft with competence.
Now, many of us live by myths that guide us, myths that may prove adequate for our entire lives. For those who live by such myths, there’s no problem here. They know what their myth is: one of the great inherited religious traditions or another. In all likelihood, this myth will suffice to guide them along the path of their lives.
There are others in this world, however, for whom these guideposts lead nowhere. You find these folks especially among university students, professors, people in the cities–the folks whom the Russians call the intelligentsia. For these, the old patterns in the old instructions just don’t hold, so that when it comes to life crisis, they are of no help.
There are others who may feel that they are living in accord with a certain system but actually are not. They go to church every Sunday and read the Bible, and yet the symbols aren’t speaking to them. The driving power is coming from something else.
You might ask yourself this question: if I were confronted with a situation of total disaster, if everything I love and thought I lived for were devastated, what would I live for? If I were to come home, find my family murdered, my house burned up, or all my career wiped out by some disaster or another, what would sustain me? We read about these things every day, we think, Well, that only happens to other people. But what if it happened to me? What would lead me to know that I could go on living and not just crack up and quit?
. . .
In our day, however, there is great confusion. We are thrown back on ourselves, and we have defined that thing which, in truth, works for us as individuals. Now, how does one do this?
Joseph Campbell (Pathways to Bliss, 85-7)