Raw material for understanding subconcious and emotional undercurrents in situations
August 21, 2006 9:59 AM   Subscribe

The terrain of the subconscious. The stories we tell ourselves. Book recommendations to better pick out and respond to the undercurrents of situations. Maybe books on archetypes, folklore, symbols, fantasy. Maybe just books with strong character development.

I've been reading pop psychology and business inspiration. (Who did move my cheese?) Great and all, but there has got to be more to life than knowing your bottom line and communicating it clearly. I mean, what truly motivates people? What are these subconcious drives driving me? I need an infusion of new ideas.

Looking at some of the patterned ways I see situations and react, I've started to realize that I have this sort of persona, there's a certain persona I always fall for, there's someone I'm trying to prove I'm not, etc. I can discern some of the easy patterns just by reading cognitive psychology (a la the Feeling Good Handbook). But it's more than just single recurring thoughts. It's a whole complex of ideas. In ways, I've gotten more insight by reading novels with strong character development. Learning how others see things, feeling what it's like inside others' lives and minds.

So I am looking for book recommendations, from non-fiction books that explicitly explain things like archetypes, to compilations of folklore, to great novels... Books that are complex and textured enough to serve as raw material for understanding myself and others, seeing the deeper dynamics in situations, etc.

All other tips, beyond book recommendations, are also welcome.
posted by beatrice to Religion & Philosophy (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Have you checked out Joseph Campbell's work?
posted by mkultra at 10:12 AM on August 21, 2006

Have you ever read the Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies? It consists of Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders and takes up many of the mysteries you are contemplating, with a heavy Jungian/archetypal emphasis. Fifth Business, in particular, is one of the best novels I've ever read.
posted by jasper411 at 10:12 AM on August 21, 2006

anything by Haruki Murakami. . .he explores the subtleties of consciousness and subconsciousness. I like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or The Wild Sheep Chase.
posted by jengineer at 10:14 AM on August 21, 2006

Seconding Joseph Campbell for non-fiction. For fiction, Henry James is the only author I've ever felt ever accurately chronicles those non-verbal emotional exchanges that happen between people without the participants even realizing them.
posted by occhiblu at 10:20 AM on August 21, 2006

I don't know if this is exactly what you're looking for, but in Edith Wharton's novels all of the interesting action takes place at the subconscious level. In the words of the son of one of her protagonists:
"You never did ask each other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath. A deaf-and-dumb asylum, in fact! Well, I back your generation for knowing more about each other’s private thoughts than we ever have time to find out about our own."
The amazing thing about her art is that she communicates all this perfectly, so the reader knows full well what is going on beneath the surface, even as the words remain unspoken.

Henry James is similar.
posted by alms at 10:21 AM on August 21, 2006

I always found this book by jung interesting. I am not sure I understand it, but I like it.

Also, civilization and its discontents is pretty good, as well as a future of an illusion.

You may want to check out Transformations by Roger Gould. It has some very interesting ideas about images that we project.

I also second Joseph Campbell.
posted by milarepa at 10:22 AM on August 21, 2006

Seconding the Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies. Adding to that the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, which is a vocabulary-builder to boot.
posted by ambrosia at 10:24 AM on August 21, 2006

Also, at least the way it's been presented to me, vipassana meditation is about recognizing how your brain creates those stories, and trying to stop yourself from getting caught up in them. (It seems, from everything I've read, to be the equivalent of cognitive-behavioral therapy, but based on older traditions.) So that might be a path to explore in your research, too.
posted by occhiblu at 10:26 AM on August 21, 2006

Ulysses might also be interesting. There's some interesting play of background/pseudo-unconscious material throughout the book.
posted by milarepa at 10:26 AM on August 21, 2006

A couple of suggestions:

Terry Warner's Bonds that Make Us Free. I actually have only read the preview manuscript, and I understand it's significantly changed since then, but I found it a fascinating look at the extent of personal responsibility in relationships.

Read some sources for archetypes. The Bible and Greek Mythology seem especially likely to be relevant in our civilization, although there's all sorts of odd stuff.

Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings. It's actually a biography of Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams. The interesting part for me was not only the details of their lives, but learning a bit about how these authors looked at patterns and archetypes.

Greg Bear's Songs of Earth and Power. It's a fantasy novel, but there's just something about the challenges and decisions the protagonist faces that I found resonant, both in terms of what happens to him and the narrative in his head.

Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Yes, it gets didactic, and yes, objectivism isn't anything to build a foundation on, but I think she was on to something with some of the characters she tried to make archetypes in this novel.
posted by weston at 10:28 AM on August 21, 2006

what truly motivates people?

1. Hunger.
2. Bodily functions.
3. Sex drive.
4. Fear of attack.
5. Intolerance of boredom.
6. Fear of change.
[Note: 5 and 6 can create some interesting dissonances.]
7. loneliness / Fear of rejection.
8. Desire for alone time.
[Note: 7 and 8 also cause dissonances.]
9. Fear of lack/desire to hoard.
10. Social hierarchy / status.
11. Empathy / Desire to give.
12. Control / Desire to hurt.
13. Desire to Lead.
14. Desire to Follow.
15. Guilt.
16. Desire to Make/Build.
17. Need to rest.

There may be a few more drives, but I doubt there are many more. What makes the world so varied and interesting is (a) when drives of two different people clash, (b) when two drives clash within one person, (c) the ranking of the various drives from most to least importance, and how this is different for different people, and (d) the way different people want to fulfill the same goals (e.g. Fred quenches his boredom by reading Shakespeare while Mike quenches his by playing xbox.)

I recommend plays and stories by Chekhov. (David Mamet has some written some good English versions of the plays.)

Eric Berne ("Games People Play") invented Transactional Analysis, which is a fascinating look at human drives and interactions. TA is out of vogue, which is too bad. In my opinion, it is an over-simplified model of the ways humans work. But "simplified" needn't mean "bad." Berne's model gives you a great way of looking at motivation.

Along the same lines: Stansilavsky's Acting Theory. It's a simplified psychology, developed for actors to help them understand and play complex characters. A great introduction is "A Practical Handbook for the Actor."
posted by grumblebee at 10:40 AM on August 21, 2006 [4 favorites]

Get out and talk to people.

Listen to what they say, how they say it. Listen for the meaning communicated by shifts of tone, strange focuses, and topics avoided entirely.

See how they interact with the people around them. Those two guys at the deli -- the immigrants? Are they brothers? Is one older than the other? How does this shape their relationship?

Be aware of how they, in turn, read you. What they make of you. Who you remind them of.

Don't get me wrong -- books (and particularly fiction) are wonderful ways of figuring character and motive but you're also surrounded by hundreds of characters in your daily life. Each of them has a unique worldview that's worth exploring.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:44 AM on August 21, 2006

Some of the strongest character development is in 19th century novels. Dostoevsky and Jane Austen are my top choices here. I've never read George Elliot but I've heard that this is her forte as well.

I also agree with meditation being a worthwhile avenue to explore.

Pop psychology sometimes has surprising insights in their lists of associated character traits. You wrote that you have read some, but I am mentioning it in case your reading has been more "Business Motivation". Their logic is frequently suspect and so is their discussion of a condition's origins. On the other hand you may find associations between behaviors and beliefs that are new to you but which have been observed by others repeatedly. For instance procrastination and perfectionism, clutter and indecision, a need to please others and a lack of goals etc. These all seem obvious now as I'm writing them but I'm not sure I could have articulated them without coming across it. You probably don't need to look at books but self-help groups on the web for various conditions frequently have an "Are you ..." page that I find interesting regardless of the condition.

If you want to take it a step further read up on Milton Erickson, the greatest hypnotist and one of the all time great therapists. Hypnosis is an under emphasized phenomena. Not all trances are created equal; trance is closely related to personality. In order for him to get the results he did he needed to be very aware of his patient's patterns of behavior and how to best evoke the responses he was looking for. Uncommon Therapy is a good introduction to him and his work. There are also a few volumes published of conversations with him and some other psychologists.
posted by BigSky at 3:04 PM on August 21, 2006

[My answers are certainly tend towards Raw Material as opposed to non-fiction expositions on the topic]

Herman Hesse, especially the Glass Bead Game (my all time favorite book), though anything by him is certain to drift between character development and archtypical activity.

For 'undercurrents in a situation' look at The Magus, by John Fowles.

Can't forget Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce, whose drifting narrative chatter is about as stream of (un/sub)conscious as you can get.

And you can't do wrong with poetry, especially those who have stood the test of time: Yeats, TS Eliot, Sandburg are my current favorites.

Also, studying the mystics (read as: fringe lunatics whose ideas outlasted their critics) of any tradition can really get you in touch with the shared human condition. Two who are pretty vivid: Meister Eckhart & Rumi

David Byrne (and the Talking Heads) have a way of portraying the modern life that gives depth to the most mundane of activities.

My favorite movie: Breakfast of Champions, as based on Kurt Vonnegut's novel of the same name, is a foray into what drives the characters in the story that becomes so ridiculous it must be true.

I started on the path your question leads to about ten years ago and haven't stopped wandering down it yet. Feel free to email if you have more specific quesitons.
posted by iurodivii at 3:39 PM on August 21, 2006

Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.
posted by shoesfullofdust at 4:27 PM on August 21, 2006

Read A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari
posted by Frankieist at 8:22 PM on August 21, 2006

Joseph Campbell's Masks of God books give a good foundation on "archetypes, folklore, symbols, fantasy" and how they manifest in dreams, religions, and art. Try The Interpretation of Fairy Tales by Marie-Louise von Franz for a Jungian take on fairy tales.
posted by RussHy at 7:53 AM on August 22, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! There are so many ideas here I hadn't considered. I have a nice long reading list now. :)
posted by beatrice at 4:06 PM on August 22, 2006

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