Deepening the Narrative of Identity: “A Harsh and Bitter Drink” <br> Murray Stein

Deepening the Narrative of Identity: “A Harsh and Bitter Drink”
Murray Stein

Deepening the Narrative of Identity: “A Harsh and Bitter Drink”

A lecture for Vilnius 2018

(Research in Psychotherapy and Culture: Exploring the Narratives of Identity)


Murray Stein


It is a pleasure and an honor to be with you and to speak at this conference on “Research in Psychotherapy and Culture: Exploring the Narratives of Identity” in Vilnius. This seems to be a most suitable place to reflect on this topic, not only because of the fine university that is hosting us here, for which we are very grateful, but also because of the history of this place, its culture, its present circumstances and its promising future.

In this lecture I will be addressing two related questions: [slide 2] Are convincing narratives of identity possible in our postmodern world? And if they are, what would they look like if we take a Jungian approach? In concluding, I will offer a thought experiment in constructing a narrative of identity.

I have titled it: “Deepening the Narrative of Identity: ‘A Harsh and Bitter Drink.’”

Narratives of Identity Under De-Construction

Scholars from a variety of academic disciplines have come to recognize the central function of stories in trying to make sense of what is going on in the world around us and for giving us a sense of orientation and (perhaps false) security. The Nobel economics laureate, Robert Shiller, has recently written about what he calls “narrative economics.”[1] He argues that most people make economic decisions based not on rationality (the “rational man” theory) but rather on stories that they find convincing. Holding on to such convincing narratives of what is going on in the world, people will choose to spend money or to save it, to travel or to stay at home, to expand their businesses or to reduce them. Stories guide our economic decisions as we peer out in the unknown future. This can of course lead to bad decisions if the stories are misleading or just plain wrong.

Politicians try to win over the public by convincing them that their narrative is the best one on offer. Sales people do the same. Creating a sales narrative is called “branding” in the world of business. We have to be careful of stories that try to persuade us to take a certain course of action. We have to test the veracity of offered narratives. Do they account for all the facts? All stories are made up of selection of facts and offer a point of view. Which one is the most inclusive, which one has the best perspective? Stories are tempting because they give us a sense of direction and coherent meaning, but it is dangerous to trust them blindly. They are like maps: some are better than others.
Stories also tell us about the past and inform our sense of personal and national identity. These are subject to debate and can be used to guide or to mislead us. We have to be aware of the stories we are buying.

Psychologists have contributed to the sense of skepticism and wariness regarding narratives, whether personal and small or collective and grand. The growing awareness of the existence of the unconscious has cast a shadow of doubt on all types of narrative that we produce for ourselves. What followed upon the momentous discovery of the unconscious was the movement called deconstructionism. [slide 3] It became evident that narratives of all kinds – whether biographical or autobiographical, historical, religious, literary or whatever – always hide undisclosed or undiscloseable (i.e., unconscious) authors’ biases and agendas. The first thing one wants to know nowadays when one picks up a biography or historical work is: Who is the author? What is their political agenda or position? What is their typology? We are on the alert to biases of all kinds – political, social, religious, cultural, and psychological. Our age has been often referred to as the age of deconstruction, and the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has named it “liquid modernity.”[2] There is no objectivity, no longer any fixed believable narrative of identity, since every narrative conceals as much as it reveals, and the net result is “liquidity.” This applies to nations and to individuals.

For individuals, a “narrative of identity” is a biographical or autobiographical statement that attempts to make sense of a huge collection of bits and pieces of personal history. It is the story of the life of an individual based on a selection of the facts available – memories, tales told by others, myths, records of events, etc. With respect to groups such as tribes, nations, and communities, a “narrative of identity” is the same, only applied to the history of the group. The Bible is such a narrative about a people, the children of Israel and the later followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, this is what we can call a “master narrative” because it gives transcendent meaning to the entire history of this group of people. Human history is guided and shaped by the will of God, the Bible tells us, and we as individuals and nations are part of this “greatest story ever told” provided we subscribe to the master narrative.

Such narratives of identity as the Bible do more than assemble a collection of facts by creating a story; they also supply a sense of deep meaning by referencing transcendent sources. In modern and postmodern times, master narratives of identity with mythic backdrops have been deconstructed by scholars who discover flaws, distortions, misstatements, self-serving reports, and so forth, and the net result has been devastating for many people who had relied on these and believed in their infallibility and literal inerrancy.

The same type of deconstruction of narratives of identity has been applied to autobiographies. Jung was famously suspicious of autobiographical writings and considered them to be mostly self-serving fabrications. A specific author might be quite innocent of such guile, of course, and might well intend to be an accurate storyteller of their life. But unconscious complexes and attitudes will inevitably creep into the account, and defenses will play a role in concealing or underplaying features of the account. Jung, for this reason, refused to write an autobiography for a long time and only late in life was persuaded to work on a personal (and deeply introverted) memoire with his secretary, Aniela Jaffe. The result is Memories, Dreams, Reflections, [slide 4] a story of his inner life with dreams at center stage and of his later search for a personal myth and sense of meaning. It, too, has been deconstructed by scholars who have delved into questions of authorship (who wrote it?), factual accuracy, interpretation and typology.

If narratives are notoriously deceptive and slippery, what about identity? This too is subject to deconstruction. If we take Erik Erikson’s definition of identity as valid, it is a psychosocial or cultural construct, an agreement between an individual and others about what kind of person one is. In Jungian terms, this is equivalent to persona. So a “narrative of identity” would be a portrait of the persona. As we know, the persona does not say the whole truth about an individual. In fact, its function is largely to conceal certain unsavory or shady aspects of personality. The same holds true of narratives of identity about groups and nations. Narratives of identity as persona represent a partial truth at best and are highly deceptive at worst.

Narratives under Re-Construction

So the question is: Is it possible to create a narrative of identity that ventures beyond persona and tells more of the truth about who and what one is? In fact, this is what we try to do in analysis, where deconstruction of a fixed narrative of identity does take place but also clears space for reconstruction and a new narrative: solve et coagula, as the alchemists put it. In analysis we first dissolve the conscious fixed structures of ego-persona identity, and then let the resulting fluidity coagulate to form a new and more complex, more whole, more authentic sense of identity that includes the shadow and the soul, i.e., the unconscious. This is an expanded sense of identity, different from Erikson’s definition.

In this lecture, which I have titled “deepening the narrative of identity,” I wish to emphasize the importance of doing “shadow work,” individual and collective, and of assembling a narrative of identity that includes, in addition to the story of ego development and persona, the aspects of life that have been suppressed, hidden, denied and forgotten (i.e., repressed). Also I will speak of bringing the soul level of the psyche into the story, which re-introduces the dominant myths and archetypal aspects of a full sense of identity. And finally I will speak to the aspects of the story that tell of the emergence of the self in narratives of identity, which address the issues of transcendence and destiny.

Thus I am proposing the inclusion of four aspects or levels in the construction narratives of identity – ego-persona, shadow, animus/anima, and self – and suggesting that this complexity in structure might give them a chance of sustaining individuals and collectives even in these postmodern times.

Shadow in the Story

Including shadow in a narrative of identity, whether individual or national, is perhaps the most emotionally challenging of all the tasks in creating such a story. This is because it involves including actions, motivations, emotions, and intentions that are not noble, in fact may be deemed bad and shameful or even evil, and are certainly contrary to the persona. In fact, they tarnish the persona. This is why shadow is hidden and if possible repressed. But it belongs in a narrative of identity that proposes to make a claim to authenticity.

A true, as opposed to a false or deceptive, narrative of identity will attempt to speak of “wholeness” – or, as we say, “warts and all.” But to arrive at this type of narrative takes courage and the willingness to confront the shadow and to go on from there to the greatest possible account of who and what a person or group or nation is. This is a tall order. As Jung writes in his late work, Mysterium Coniuntionis: [slide 5]

…the structure of wholeness was always present but was buried in profound unconsciousness, where it can always be found again if one is willing to risk one’s skin to attain the greatest possible range of consciousness through the greatest possible self-knowledge – a “harsh and bitter drink” usually reserved for hell… It is not the ‘self’ we like to imagine ourselves to be after carefully removing all the blemishes, but the empirical ego just as it is, with everything that it does and everything that happens to it. Everybody would like to be quit of this odious adjunct, which is precisely why in the East the ego is explained as illusion and why in the West it is offered up in sacrifice to the Christ figure.[3]

Inclusion of the shadow is necessary in order to anchor the narrative in reality and to prevent distortion in the direction of a cleaned up persona. Shadow awareness is the key to building a narrative of deepened identity that is solid and not vulnerable to deconstruction. It is, however, as Jung writes, a “harsh and bitter drink.”

Jung’s observations here are founded on his own personal experience in assembling his narrative of identity, which he accomplished as a result of his “confrontation with the unconscious,” in other words from his Red Book years. But his deep shadow work did not pertain only to himself. It had to do with his culture as well. I could cite many passages from The Red Book in evidence. Here is one of them, a graphic one, taken from a chapter titled “Death”: [slide 6]

…what happened to my day? Torches were kindled, bloody anger and disputes erupted. As darkness seized the world, the terrible war arose and the darkness destroyed the light of the world, since it was incomprehensible to the darkness and good for nothing anymore. And so we had to taste Hell.

“I saw which vices the virtues of this time changed into, how your mildness became hard, your goodness became brutality, your love became rage, and your understanding became madness. Why did you want to comprehend the darkness? But you had to or else it would have seized you. Happy the man who anticipates this grasp.[4]

In this dark passage he is speaking of the horrors of war as it was experienced in the years 1914-1918 in Europe. Even more importantly, Jung is showing how acknowledgment of the shadow prevents contamination by the collective shadow. This requires grasping it individually, by seeing the same thing at work in oneself. Somewhat paradoxically, this serves as a kind of antidote and prevents being swallowed up by the collective shadow. Inner and outer worlds are intimately connected but must also be held apart. This experience of the shadow would become part of his narrative of identity, and a critically important one as one can see from careful study of The Red Book. It left him a changed man with a changed narrative of identity.

The notion that integrating the shadow in the narrative of identity can inoculate one against states of possession by archetypal and collective shadow forces is critical to understanding why it is so vital to build the shadow into narratives of identity. What Jung saw happening in the Europe of the first half of the 20th century, and what we see happening in our time these days, is the power of archetypal images and defenses to overcome the awareness of the ego’s limitations and sense of reality and to repress shadow awareness utterly. The inappropriate introduction of myth and symbol into the narrative of identity leads to what Jung termed “mana-personality,”[5] a state of limitless psychological inflation.  Shadow awareness is the best and perhaps the only bulwark against this outcome.

Narratives of identity typically do, and indeed must, include some aspects of the archetypal level of the psyche. This is the level of myth and symbol. What happens in the event of the “mana-personality” taking over is that the ego becomes so imbued with the persuasive power of myth and symbol that it loses the capacity to make decisions based on reality and interpersonal awareness (“the other”). Politics uses this state of mind to whip up war fever in the collective, as one saw in the young men of the nations of Europe going enthusiastically into the trenches of World War I. [slide 7] They stood in long lines to enlist in the heroic fantasies of warfare, and young women cheered them on to their gruesome death by the millions. In the Germany of the 1930’s after Hitler came to power, one saw the same thing. When Jung wrote his analysis of Germany in the 1930’s and spoke of a state of “collective possession” (“Ergriffenheit”) by the Wotan archetype,[6] he was identifying the problem of the “mana personality” in a collective setting. The Leader plays on this and uses it to advance his inflated will. And inevitably there is overreach. The ego no longer can adjust to reality and so tips over into wanton risk of life and limb. The persona goes along with this, and a narrative of identity develops that speaks of an “exceptional Volk” or a “people of destiny.” What is left out is shadow awareness. It is repressed and attacked as subversive.

In the Red Book narrative, Jung kills the hero Siegfried with the help of the shadow, the little dark man who accompanies him. [slide 8] This will inoculate him from falling victim of the hero archetype, and his narrative of identity will thereafter include the little brown man at his side.

Archetypal Images in the Narrative of Identity

Besides the ego-persona and the shadow levels, a complete and whole narrative of identity does require an archetypal aura, a mythic reference point. The narrative of identity is a compound construction made up of personal or local elements, cultural elements, and universal elements. What is true of individuals is also true of nations: They have an empirical history, and they have grounding in myth and symbol. Narratives of identity are very poor indeed, two-dimensional, if they lack the third, the archetypal, dimension.

As individuals, we typically have two names: a given name and a family name. The given name is somewhat individual and personal and would correspond to the ego-persona aspect of identity. The family name includes a collective aspect, the generations behind the personal. This too belongs to the ego-persona aspect of a narrative of identity, but if one digs deeper it would include shadow aspects of the family history and background and an assortment of family and cultural complexes. Additionally, through dreams one will sometimes receive a name that belongs even more deeply to the collective, a mythic or far-reaching and distant historical name: biblical names like Joseph or Jacob; historical names like Julius Caesar or Charlemagne.

Jung speaks of his two personalities in his autobiographical memoire: the first living entirely in the here-and-now, young Carl, and the second consisting of a much older and nobler gentleman of history. And then in The Red Book Philemon appears, who also represents an essential part of Jung’s narrative of identity. Until The Red Book was published in 2009, not much was known about this other mythic and archetypal side of Jung’s narrative of identity. It was a secret that he kept largely to himself, but I’m sure he thought about it a great deal and included it in his sense of self.

T.S. Elliot wrote that every cat has three names: the one that everybody knows, the one that only a few people know, [slide 9]

But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover—
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.[7]

For Jung, this name was Philemon.

So it is with a whole and complete narrative of identity: That secret name, ineffable and known only to the holder of it, is the mythical name of the second and more archetypal personality within all of us. “We are that pair of Dioscuri [Castor and Pollux], one of who is mortal and the other immortal, and who, though always together, can never be made completely one,” Jung once declared.[8] This name is essential to include in the narrative of identity, but clearly not as the name of the ego or persona.

What this level of the narrative of identity provides is another dimension, an image of greater stature than that possessed by the ego-persona features. This dimension derives from the inner world, the unconscious. As Jung observes: “The intuition of immortality which makes itself felt … is connected with the peculiar nature of the unconscious. It is, in a sense, non-spatial and non-temporal… The feeling of immortality, it seems to me, has its origin in a peculiar feeling of extension in space and time.”[9] We are not only what we consciously think and feel. We are also what we imagine and dream, and more. A complete narrative of identity, whether individual or collective, personal or national, will inevitably, in the course of development, come to include this dimension. For individuals, this arrives by way of dreams and active imagination. For nations and peoples, poets and prophets offer this mythic aspect: by Vergil for Rome, [slide 10[ by Elijah and Isaiah for the people of Israel, by Paul and the Evangelists for Christians, by Laozi for Taoists, by Walt Whitman for America. This archetypal element elevates the narrative, just as the shadow grounds it. The archetypal must not eliminate or obscure the shadow aspect, which anchors us to an essential truth about ourselves, but rather add a third dimension to the narrative.

The Self as the Fourth

Jung was exceptionally fond of the so-called Axiom of Maria Prophetissa: “One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth.” We can apply this to our theme: In the course of constructing a narrative of identity that includes ego-persona, shadow and soul dimensions, the original self appears, now as the transcendent unity of the whole. This is a recovered sense of wholeness that returns after having been dismembered and deconstructed by analysis and reconstructed by synthesis of the pieces. The result is a narrative with a transcendent center. [slide 11]

This mystical center (“the bindu point,” as it is called in Tibetan Buddhism) introduces the note of transcendent meaning, purpose and destiny. Often this deep and mysterious sense of meaning is contributed by synchronistic events. What this introduces is the sense that the narrative of identity is the story of a life history that is inevitable, destined, meant, and guided by an invisible source of meaning and purpose. If it is a good enough story, there is gratitude: amor fati.

Taken together, the third and fourth pillars connect the individual person, or community, or nation to the anima mundi, while the first and second pillars locate them in historical time and space. All four dimensions are needed for a full and complete narrative of identity if we follow Jungian principles and perspectives. It seems to me that such a narrative would be able to survive and even thrive in postmodernity and beyond.

A Thought Experiment

Suppose now for a moment and as an experiment that we would want to create a narrative of identity for the IAAP based on these four pillars. The ego-persona part of the story has to do with its history since its founding in Zurich in 1955, its growth over the six decades since then to its present extension across the globe, its constitution and by-laws, its organizational structure, its perceived presence in the world of culture and mental health institutions worldwide. This story is told in the history books, like Thomas Kirsch’s The Jungians. [slide 12]

The shadow part of the narrative would have to do with the conflicts – externally with other organizations and internally among various groups and individuals – that have led to hostile splits and painful divisions; also with recognition of the misbehavior of various individuals and ethical infractions; with power ambitions and “incestuous relations” within institutes among analysts and candidates; with blind elitism and cultural prejudice. This story has been somewhat written in journal articles and books and exposed in congresses. Andrew Samuels is currently our specialist in this area.

The soul dimension of the IAAP’s narrative of identity would be told partly in the inspired works of the ancestors and founding figures, such as Jung himself and the people around him, his brilliant disciples like Erich Neumann and Marie-Louise von Franz, and other significant contributors to the field. And beyond them, we would include the deep connections to traditions such as alchemy and gnosis, religions worldwide, the “golden chain” (cantena aurea) of wisdom. Analytical psychology is alive with exciting ideas, and this is one of its most attractive features. The spirit (animus) is vibrantly present in our community.

Importantly, too, are the present members of the IAAP with their dreams and visions. This invisible network is what provides the field with its energy. It contains countless mythic images and symbols and gives the members of the IAAP a sense of identity grounded in myth and archetype. This is regularly revealed and elaborated in their works and manifests in the spirit that infuses the IAAP Congresses and conferences such as this one. The IAAP includes within its narrative of identity the souls of all these individuals who have given their best to the work of Jungian psychology worldwide, truly a collective opus in the alchemical sense. This is the anima of the organization, and it extends far beyond the organizational structures of the IAAP and reaches out into the far-flung cultures of every corner of the earth. This is the living and breathing soul of the IAAP today as it carries out its mission of raising consciousness in the world.

Beyond this, the soul level will and must connect the narrative to a universal and transcendent core, to anima mundi. To the extent that the IAAP represents soul in and of the world it connects to anima mundi and to all myths and philosophies that have delved into this dimension of reality.

And who is our poet, the bard who raises our narrative to such awesome heights and depths of myth and symbol? A candidate might be C.G. Jung, whose poem, The Red Book: Liber Novus, could serve this purpose, and he be our Vergil, our prophet, our poet-seer. [slide 13]

Finally, the fourth dimension, the One that sums up the Whole and gives the narrative the note of destiny, is the mysterious touch of synchronicity. This is hard to speak about because it is so complex and ubiquitous. I am thinking of the many people who have been drawn to Jungian psychology by the uncanny hidden hand at work in synchronistic events. How did you learn of Jungian psychology? How was it that the founding members of the Jungian organizations in Japan, in Brazil, in the United States, in London came into the Jungian story? Almost one hundred percent came in by meaningful chance – a chance meeting, a chance book, a chance conversation. And once drawn in, almost all stayed and contributed amazing amounts of energy and thought. Out of this ferment the IAAP arose. At IAAP Congresses members sense the organization has a meaning in the world, and they feel a part of it. Would an astrological reading of IAAP’s birth in the summer of 1955 in Zurich, which was presented to Jung as a gift on his 80th birthday, give us a clue? We could ask Liz Greene for her opinion.

If the story of the IAAP is written with these four dimensions in mind, it will be a narrative of identity that will be authentic and I believe will have staying power. It will not be static but rather unfolding and evolving. It will be less vulnerable to deconstructions because it will be open to constant revision from within, open to the unconscious and oriented by the self. It will be an honest testament because of the “harsh and bitter drink” of self-reflection taken and absorbed, because it has included the shadow and has found access to the mystery of its meaning in the world without falling victim to inflation and mana-personality. This is a narrative of identity that continues to be written in each and every generation.

[1] Discussed by John Authors, FTWeekend, 10/11 March 2018.

[2] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2000, 2012).

[3] C.G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956), par. 283.

[4] C.G. Jung, The Red Book, Reader’s Edition (New York: Norton, 2009), 265.

[5] C.G. Jung, “The Mana-Personality,” in CW 7 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966), paras. 374-406.

[6] C.G. Jung, “Wotan,” in CW 10 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964), paras. 371-399.

[7] T.S. Elliot, “The Naming of Cats.”

[8] C.G. Jung, “Concerning Rebirth,” in CW 9i (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), par. 235.

[9] Ibid., par. 249.


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