Jungian literary criticism
August 29, 2008 8:49 AM   Subscribe

Help me find examples of literary criticism adopting the Jungian idea that all the characters are aspects of the same person.

I am researching character from the standpoint of analytic philosophy of mind/emotions and aesthetics of literature. I am interested in exploring the idea that every character in a book is really just different aspects of one person. I take this to be derived from Jung's claim that everyone in your dreams is really yourself. So first of all, can anyone point me to an exact reference to this idea (preferably accessible online). And if not in dreams, then in literature, or even in real social life? Related to this is of course the stuff about archetypes, but I consider that idea completely secondary to the first one about distributed identity and I am much less interested in it.

Second, I am interested in finding examples of literary/film criticism that use this basic assumption to analyse a work. I am personally applying it to the work of Herman Hesse (who was analysed by Jung and where the connection to his works has been made before). But can anyone provide references to scholarly articles that do this (again preferably accessible online)?

By the way, I don't know much about the literary criticism tradition, and am generally sceptical of their style, so tips regarding that are also welcome.
posted by leibniz to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Does TV count? Because the UK version of Coupling was about as blatant an example as I've ever seen.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:32 AM on August 29, 2008

As a writer I find this interesting for several reasons. One, I admire Jung. Two, your thesis (in the broad sense; I don't know if that is what you are working on) is quite interesting. Third, at the risk of being too obvious, of course all characters in a book are different aspects of one person: the author. I don't mean to be offensive, but I am not sure that putting this at a remove and saying that "All the characters are simply aspects of one uber-character" isn't... kind of...

posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:01 AM on August 29, 2008

Reflecting on your question, I'm wondering: when you say you're interested in an analysis where "every character in a book is really just different aspects of one person," who is that one person? Do you mean to say that it's a separate meta-character, never mentioned in the book itself, but made up of all the characters in it? Or do you mean that all the characters are different aspects of the author?

If it's the first case, I can't help you -- I don't know of any criticism of that sort (doesn't mean it doesn't exist, I just don't know of it). If it's the second case, I'm doubtful that you'll find any contemporary literary criticism in that vein, because it relies on an old-fashioned* idea of the author's relationship to the text -- namely, that literary analysis should use the text to help illuminate the author's life (i.e., "This sonnet proves that Shakespeare was gay"). You might have more luck looking outside the realm of academic lit crit and into the realm of biography, writers writing about writing, and essayistic, non-academic literary reviews.

Along those lines, I'm currently reading James Wood's How Fiction Works (loving it, by the way) and his chapter on character touches on your idea. I'm looking at page 122, where he quotes Iris Murdoch:
In her literary and philosophical criticism, she again and again stresses that the creation of free and independent characters is the mark of the great novelist; yet her own characters never have this freedom. She knew it, too: "How soon one discovers that, however much one is in the ordinary sense 'interested in other people,' this interest has left one far short of possessing the knowledge required to create a character who is not oneself. It is impossible, it seems to me, not to see one's failure here as a sort of spiritual failure."
I can't find a specific citation for this quote, but you might try looking through Murdoch's criticism. It could make an interesting addition (or counterpoint) to your argument.

* Old-fashioned in lit crit, at least. Disclaimer: I could be wrong here -- for all I know, there's a really rigorous, avant-garde new school of criticism that's all about bringing back the author, live and in-person, and I'm just out of the loop. But I don't think so, and, if so, I'm sure someone will be along to correct me shortly.
posted by ourobouros at 10:34 AM on August 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

The closest you're likely to come to this (aside from whatever you can find in Jung and his circle's own writings on literature) is the idea in Russian Formalism (stemming from Propp's Morphology of the Folktale and a few other works), and in later structuralist criticism, that a typology of narrative actions and functions matters more than a typology of characters – that is, that how characters work in stories is more important than who they are. I would start with Propp and some secondary works on formalism and structuralism (e.g. take a look at the chapter on the novel in Culler's Structuralist Poetics) and go from there.
posted by RogerB at 11:14 AM on August 29, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the above replies. I am, by the way, happy to have a bit of debate about this theory here as well. I am interested in the claim that the characters in a narrative are different aspects of the author, but I agree that authors might not deliberately do this, and may even actively avoid it (as the good quote from Iris Murdoch suggests). I'm also not really looking to claim that authors do it unconsciously (though that argument could be made).

My background for this is (I hope) a bit more deep and philosophical. I am working off the idea propounded by philosophers like Hume and particularly Nietzsche that the common conception we all possess of having a singular unified personal identity is a fiction, and really we are just a bundle of different desires and emotions and sensations loosely mixed together. Then the idea is that part of maturing requires constructing a singular identity out of all this, by means of having some of your drives/values/traits dominate others. In Nietzsche, this reaches its pinnacle in the sovereign individual (from the Genealogy of Morality) which is similar to, but not the same as the ubermensch. The sovereign individual has achieved a perfectly balanced hierarchy of drives/values, which makes him maximally autonomous/free, able to make promises, a strong person etc. Nietzsche is always going on about the re-evaluation of values. The sovereign individual has decided for himself what is most important (his top identity-defining value) rather than simply accepted what his society or parents valued.

OK. So now the idea is that literary narratives symbolise this process in a variety of ways. Firstly, in purely structural ways, the hero of a narrative is automaticaly given unity in terms of his narrative problem. This is the idea of the character arc, where the character seeks to resolve some instability that has arisen. Secondly achieving a hierarchy of drives is all about telling a story about your life, where you've come from, where you're going, emphasising some details, de-emphasising others etc... There's some other analogies between literature and self-construction but then I get into this idea that in some cases, the relation the hero has with other characters in the novel is this process of prioritisation externalised/writ large. So by vanquishing the bad guy, the hero has really overcome certain undesirable factors in his own personality. In this case then, you don't have to talk about aspects of the author, but rather the main character or perhaps the fictional narrator.

This last idea would be helpful in resolving a complaint about narratives that they over-emphasise the causal role that character has in life (whereas in reality we generally do what the circumstances dictate). They would solve this problem, because the whole point of the narrative is to have different (clusters of) desires/emotions/values battle against each other, symbolised by different characters.

So in this theoretical sense, all narratives can be interpreted as exploring solutions to character problems and the construction of identity, and potentially educating the reader in this way. Fictional narratives are thought experiments that help us realise the character ideal. But some authors definitely do this more explictly than others, and I might not want to make any universal claims so much as say that this is an interesting way to read books and get benefit from them.
posted by leibniz at 11:41 AM on August 29, 2008

Y'know, this really is fascinating but somehow it still seems kind of self-evident to me in some way. Fiction is story-telling, which is an aritficial manipulation of a series of concepts and ideas for an end, more or less polemical, but there is a big difference between War and Peace and Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers. What of genre fiction versus "serious literary" fiction? More people read the genre stuff.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 11:54 AM on August 29, 2008

Response by poster: If it's self-evident, someone should have already written about it, which is why I'm looking for sources.

We can just say that genre fiction looks at particular types of character problem (e.g. to do with values of bravery or romance). 'Serious' novels might also be a bit more realistic, subtle or intense in their explorations. We could also make a moral argument in terms of how we are educating or corrupting people in terms of pushing certain kinds of character answers (the claim being that bad genre novels encourage unhealthy or ineffective values, which is what novels like Don Quixote and Madame Bovary are partly about).
posted by leibniz at 12:22 PM on August 29, 2008

Have you read Christopher Booker's "The Seven Basic Plots"? It's a heavy brick of a thing, about 800 pages, but it's written at a layman's level. One of the things it emphasizes really heavily is a 'comedy' as a story where the hero is able to successfully integrate his masculine and feminine aspects (which are personified as feminine characters) and a 'tragedy' as a story where this doesn't happen (the character is alienated from women and thus alienated from himself).
posted by Jeanne at 12:50 PM on August 29, 2008

You probably shouldn't take this too seriously, but: The Jungian personality struggle in the Harry Potter books.

I also recall someone (Joss Whedon?) saying in a Firefly episode commentary that in some sense everyone on the ship represents a facet of Mal (often one he's unwilling to accept in himself). I realize that's not a very good citation, and not an independent critic either. I'm about to watch all the commentaries again, so I'll see if I can improve the citation at least.
posted by eritain at 1:27 PM on August 29, 2008

This sounds like an exciting project, leibniz. It's been ages since I've read anything by him, but Robertson Davies was hugely influenced by Jung -- particularly his Fifth Business trilogy. A lot of Jungian criticism was written on those books, so there might be something in there. But I think that those books were more interested in the notion of archetypes than distributed identity.

BTW, your question reminded me of Matt Ruff's Set This House in Order, which is a really fun novel about multiple personalities. You might find it interesting.
posted by painquale at 1:44 PM on August 29, 2008

The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell comes to mind.
posted by conrad53 at 4:52 PM on August 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Suggesting "The Unrecognized Influence of Hegel's Theory of Tragedy" by Leonard Moss (available at jstor) and Hegel's "Phenomenology of Spirit".

The Role of the "We" in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit
posted by sluglicker at 6:34 PM on August 29, 2008

You might also find George Johnson's Fire in the Mind useful. I'm thinking that the collapse of the wave function in quantum physics (occurring only when someone takes a measurement; otherwise all possibilities exist) and The Many Worlds Theory might correlate to what you're suggesting.
posted by sluglicker at 7:15 PM on August 29, 2008

Northrop Frye's "Theory of Archetypes" was very influential in its day, and drew heavily on Jung. Anatomy of Criticism and Fables of Identity may have been his most significant books.

The Fugitive movement in the US was also quite influenced by Jung, and their students carried that forward. Richard Slotkin's Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier is probably the best (and best known) books of the post-Fugitive generation that draws on the Jungian archetypal topoi.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:59 PM on August 29, 2008

Dunno if this is serious enough, but: Golden Girls: Feminine Archetypal Patterns of the Complete Woman? It was kinda fun, at least, when I read it a million years ago.
posted by Opposite George at 9:23 PM on August 29, 2008

Citation improved: Nathan Fillion, in commentary to the pilot episode (Serenity, not to be confused with the movie), during the scene in which Mal talks with a wounded Kaylee in the infirmary, says he always thought of the other people as aspects of Mal's personality that he had lost, or couldn't have.
posted by eritain at 9:31 PM on August 29, 2008

the Jungian idea that all the characters are aspects of the same person

That description is vague, and I'm not familiar with it being an actual Jungian concept. Would you cite, please?
posted by sluglicker at 11:27 PM on August 29, 2008

Response by poster: the Jungian idea that all the characters are aspects of the same person

That description is vague, and I'm not familiar with it being an actual Jungian concept. Would you cite, please?

Note in my post question that I am asking if anyone knows the exact source of this idea.
posted by leibniz at 9:23 AM on August 30, 2008

Note in my post question that I am asking if anyone knows the exact source of this idea.

I'm sorry, I misread. The fpp asks for examples of literary criticism adopting Jung's idea, but the more inside additionally asks for the original reference to Jung. Maybe the question should be, "Does the idea that all characters are aspects of the same person originate with Jung?" The way you've worded it assumes that, in fact, it does. What makes you think so? It's an interesting idea, no matter what the origin.

You might want to post your question to alt.psychology.jung or some other discussion group where Jungian experts hang out if you don't get a satisfactory answer here.
posted by sluglicker at 12:48 PM on August 30, 2008

My Google search yielded nothing, but in college I read of the "aspects of one mind" notion applied to Shakespeare, and the term "polymachia" was used. Sorry no more help than that...
posted by rleamon at 6:58 PM on August 30, 2008

Response by poster: As a follow up, I got this response from posting to the alt.psychology.jung group.

I have heard it said that Jung thought every character in your dreams is an aspect of yourself. Can anyone point me to the exact source of this idea (preferably with text I can access online)

"The dream is the theater where the dreamer is at once scene, actor, prompter, stage manager, author, audience, and critic" (General Aspects of Dream Psychology)

"...the meaning of most dreams is not in accord with the tendencies of the conscious mind but shows peculiar deviations...When I attempted to express this behavior in a formula, the concept of compensation seemed to me the only adequate one, for it alone is capable of summing up all the various ways in which a dream behaves... compensation, as the term implies, means balancing and comparing different data or points of view so as to produce an adjustment or a rectification. In this regard there are three possibilities. If the conscious attitude to the life situation is in large degree one-sided, then the dream takes the opposite side. If the conscious has a position fairly near the “middle,” the dream is satisfied with variations. If the conscious attitude is “correct” (adequate), then the dream coincides with and emphasizes this tendency, though without forfeiting its peculiar autonomy. As one never knows with certainty how to evaluate the conscious situation of a patient, dream-interpretation is naturally impossible without questioning the dreamer. But even if we know the conscious situation we know nothing of the attitude of the unconscious"
Retrieved from http://scriptorpress.yage.net/BM32_2004_jung.pdf)

This tells us two things:

1) Lists of symbols or books or people who claim to be able to interpret dreams without in-depth psychological analysis of the dreamer, are not in accord with Jungian principles, and
2) If I dream of my boss, just like in real life it will only be a projection of what I imagine my boss to be, and therefore, one way or the other, a dream of my boss will always ultimately only be a reflection of myself.

and whether he supposed it to apply to anything else (i.e. works of fiction, or real life)?

Do some research on Jung's concept of projection for the answer to that one.

The Sage
posted by leibniz at 3:29 AM on September 16, 2008

I see two wavering points in that Jung thread, so I am not sure if it confirms your query. The question seems to be if the subjective has access to a transphenomenological objective beyond their own interiorality. This goes back to Hume in some respects.
posted by ageispolis at 1:29 AM on November 15, 2008

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