Re-envisioning The Odyssey: The Significance of Archetypal Analysis in a Postmodern Age


Often in many literary analyses, there is an employment of symbolic representation and even deference to particular dynamics of psychological insights in order to illuminate meaning from a text. In this approach, literary critics take into consideration: imagery from a text, objects, character personality traits, recurring narrative themes, and even the cultural structure in the era of a written work – incorporating social anthropology. This type of analysis in literary theory is known as archetypal criticism. Its origins are rooted in the fields of Jungian psychoanalysis and social anthropology; it was popularized as a form of literary criticism by Northrop Frye. For Frye, archetypes “play an essential role in refashioning the material universe into an alternative verbal universe that is humanly intelligible and viable, because it is adapted to essential human needs and concerns.” Once a thriving field of criticism, this form of analysis is no longer widely practiced and there are no more major developments within the field. What are the conditions surrounding the dwindling of this practice and why is it still important to consider its insights? This essay will seek to grok the profundities of archetypal criticism by analyzing a cornerstone work of western literature The Odyssey – illustrating the relevance of the field, and also to show how the postmodern “turn” constricted its development and to attempt to re-integrate it into the literary discussion.

The Odyssey explores two recurring narrative archetypes: the “initiation” and the “journey.” The first is exemplified by the character of Telemachus. In the opening pages of the epic, he is left in a situation of uncertainty. With his father still absent, he has not yet presumed responsibility of his position in Ithica and endures hostility from squabbling suitors even though it is his inheritance. He is in the stage of life where he is too young to take control of the situation. However when the Greek goddess Athene meets with Telemachus, his personality shifts to a confident, poised, independent man as she tells him to search for his father. Everyone including the suitors begin to take notice. He even coordinates an assembly which had not been scheduled in Ithica since his father. This behavior signifies an integral and important transitional role in the initiation process as this action represents a new establishment in Ithica. This moment marks his progression into manhood. “Is it a little thing ye wooers, that in time past ye wasted many good things of my getting, while I was yet a child? But now that I am a grown man…,” (Ch. 2) Telemachus says. His journey into adulthood is a manifestation of the “initiation” archetype.

The other thematic archetype concerns itself with the nature of man’s existential condition. The perspective of Odysseus portrays the angst of man when encountered by life’s troubling and unforgiving circumstances. Reading how he returns to Ithica creates a reciprocal dialectic between the reader and the protagonist on the question of identity. The beginning of the plot discloses the solitary predicament of Odysseus as he is confined on the island with Calypso. However, he makes the decision to leave the island and to return home unknown to any awaiting confrontation. This illustrates the archetype of man’s journey out of comfort and certainty into the realm of the ambiguities of life. The actual adventure of Odysseus outlines the details of life’s uncertain nature:

“At least three of the dangers Odysseus encounters are dangers precisely because of what they would do for this desire of man to experience the world around him. The Lotus-Eaters offer men forgetfulness of the hard world; Circe dulls their senses and thus their ability to perceive; the Sirens offer knowledge without experience, a deceptive trap.”

The projection of choice issued by self-legislation creating anxiety is more of a modern archetype, but its rudimentary development is prevalent in the ancient Greek collective unconscious and is demonstrated in the narrative.

“Symbolically, the two narratives can also be seen as interrelated. Leaving the world of innocence for the world of experience and searching the world of experience until one finds his place in that world together constitute the Odyssey itself – the journey through life.”

Jungian psychoanalysis introduces the notion of the “archetype.” For Jung, who sought to distinguish himself from the biological reductionist approach of Freud, theorized that the mind is conditioned by the innate structure of the collective unconscious. This structure is composed of what is called the “archetypes” – epistemic filters that underlie all of human knowledge and make it possible. The important argument to consider is that these manifest cross-culturally and endure through any elapse of time. In Jung’s theory, these were an ontological reality; in literary criticism, it is not necessary. This is important to note for any contemporary critics who may be turned away by any sign of ushering in mysticism. One notable Jungian archetype is exemplified by Odysseus, the “trickster.” What distinguishes him from other mythological heroes is the fact of his intelligence. In other narratives, there is a stressing of the capacity of strength and bravery with a little assistance of wisdom from the gods. Odysseus represents the embodiment of wisdom and intelligence and receives courage and strength from the gods. Because of his craftiness and his skillful art of disguise, Homer even addresses him as “Cunning” Odysseus. It is no surprise that it is partially disclosed that Hermes, the “trickster-god”, is Odysseus’s great-grandfather. The Cambridge Companion to Jung lucidly expounds on this perspective of Odysseus,

“Why then should Odysseus’ embodiment of this quality make him not merely an ‘untypical’ hero but specifically a trickster and the refraction of an archetype? There are two reasons. The first is the way he combines cunning resourcefulness with significant traces of other essential trickster qualities. The second is his connection to Hermes.”

In departure from analyzing the textual archetypes in the epic, an appropriation towards the dynamics of the culture in ancient Greece, and how this undergirds Homer’s narrative is of the essence. It is important to recognize that what proceeds is not a Marxist critique of the text, because it predicates itself on the collective psyche of the society and not class differentiation. Social anthropology is considered an extension of archetypal criticism. For the ancients Greeks, two things permeate the phenomenological and intuitive consciousness: the notion of “cyclical” time and the dialectic of guilt/sacrifice.  The first is a framed reflection on the way the Greeks registered the seasonal patterns of their environment. They were caught in the midst of the capricious flow of time and were directly participating with the rhythms of the natural world. Ernest Becker, a well-known cultural anthropologist, had researched and written on this subject and it is appropriate to quote him at length:

“Primitive man lived in a world devoid of clocks, progressive calendars, once-only numbered years. Nature was seen in her imagined purity of endless cycles of sun risings and settings, moon waxings and wanings, seasons changing, animals dying and being born, etc. This kind of cosmology is not favorable to the accumulation of either guilt or property, since everything is wiped away with the gifts and nature is renewed with the help of ritual ceremonies of regeneration. Man did not feel that he had to pile things up.”

What is interesting in The Odyssey is the fact that in the end, Odysseus’s adventure does not actualize from a linear progression into an epiphany or climax into new territory, but rather he returns from his journey to where he first began. This is telling of the cyclical condition of the ancient mind and the unfolding of Odysseus’s conflict reflects the seasonal shifts of the natural world.

The other aspect of the conscious manifold of the culture is that of guilt/sacrifice, which Becker places in conjunction with the former. Along with the seasonal dynamics of nature was the feeling of guilt from the gifts of the mysterious forces of the natural world that the people were dependent on. It was an obligation to sacrifice goods (animals, fresh produce, etc.) in order to alleviate the anxiety accumulated from the ambiguity of knowing what to give thanks to and to make sure that these forces were rejuvenated to regulate its cycle. This dialectic between the individual and the natural forces is illustrative of Odysseus’s circumstance coping with the immersive powers of the gods all around him. Becker continues, “Society, in other words, is a dramatization of dependence and an exercise in mutual safety by the animal in evolution who had to figure out a way of appeasing himself as well as nature. We can conclude that primitives were more honest about these things – about guilt and debt – because they were more realistic about man’s desperate situation vis-à-vis nature.”

It is this relationship with the gods that permeates Greek civilization. Corey Anton, Prof. of Communication Studies at GrandValleyStateUniversity (PhD), synthesizes Becker: “We can summarize by suggesting that humans need more than simply self-esteem or heroic death denial. First, because humans stick out and have cultivated a sense of self-sufficiency, they need to feel significant or in Becker’s terms, ‘heroic.’ Second, because people can ‘stick out too much,’ they need to adequately give in return so as to expiate the guilt of separation. In other words, people need to be indentified with and recognize their dependence upon something vaster into which they can lose themselves. Here we are reminded of Odysseus’s lesson regarding the all-too-human temptation: ‘Do not forget the gods; they are the source of life-sustaining powers.”

The self-sufficing independence of Odysseus’s heroic character is reconsidered. In the end, he must pay tribute to the gods who are greater than himself. This psychology was embodied in Homer’s work.

What has been demonstrated is a method of analysis that codifies a particular narrative to its psychological archetypes. The previous arguments elucidate and capture this approach in the epic of The Odyssey in attempt to reconsider the integrality of archetypal criticism. What causes precipitated the decline of this mode of criticism and how might it be transcended? The elephant in the room is the development of Postmodernism. This philosophical perspective offers a devastating critique of meaning, specifically with language. Jacques Derrida, the main figure in this movement, was majorly influence by the school of thought known as Structuralism. Structuralism holds that the meaning of signs (words) is structurally determined by the difference of all signs from each other in a given network. This means that a word’s meaning is not derived from the correspondence of an external ontological object (signified) to its’ sign (signifier), but rather it is only because of its differentiated relationship among other words that it becomes meaningful (similar to the nitrogenous bases that compose the structure of DNA which are meaningless on their on but construct meaning when synthesized). This theory was hoped to provide a system for studying the humanities (Anthropology, Literature, Sociology, etc.) in a scientific way. Derrida and the postmodern thinkers adopt this notion and reappropriate the structuralist principle against structuralism itself. In other words, they propose an internal critique of the theory. In postmodernism (deconstruction), language is a proliferation of sign differentiation predicated on nothing. Any attempt to trace meaning back to an indubitable foundation for all knowledge become null. This has a devastating impact on literature and archetypal criticism is not removed from skepticism, “However, due to the influx of critical postmodern perspectives throughout the last two decades of the twentieth century, archetypal criticism generally, and Frye’s influence and prestige specifically, began to wane.” Literature at this angle becomes a web of irrelevance; there is no distinctive qualities laid claim to a specific genre, epic poetry (Homer) can become a horror story. Is there any path out of this contemporary paradigm and can the archetypal perspective emerge out of this self-defecating philosophy?

Surprisingly, the avenue might be archetypal analysis as new psychological developments unfold. This fresh outlook towards a more integrated and holistic interpretation of the dialectic of the intellectual mind will seek to undercut the subject-object epistemological distinction that has hitherto underlined all of western philosophy. This new extension in archetypal psychology can be found in the work of Stanislov Grof. Grof is a psychoanalytic psychologist with a Freudian background. However, as a result of his experiments, he found himself in the position to synthesize Freud’s biological perspective with Jung’s archetypal perspective. During several thousand psychoanalytic sessions, Grof uses psychoactive substances (LSD) on his subjects in conjunction with meditative sessions in order to stimulate unconscious processes. The subjects proceeded to enter deeper and further into the unconscious, even the stages of the Oedipus complex and early infantile experiences – a representation of what seemed as empirical evidence for Freud’s principles. As the experiments continued, the subjects explored the unconscious mind further than what had be conceived – to the biological womb itself; this is where the analysis shifts to the archetypal. Richard Tarnas, who has written extensively on the nature and implications of the archetypes, elaborates on Grof’s work: “First, the archetypal sequence that governed the perinatal phenomena from womb through birth canal to birth was experienced above all as a powerful dialectic – moving from an initial state of undifferentiated unity to a problematic state of constriction, conflict, and contradiction, with an accompanying sense of separation, duality, and alienation; and finally moving through a stage of complete annihilation to an unexpected redemptive liberation that both overcame and fulfilled the intervening alienated state – restoring the initial unity but on a new level that preserved the achievement of the whole trajectory.”

Tarnas goes on to demonstrate how these archetypal stages (drawing on Jung’s notion of “synchronicity”) manifest outside the individual human unconscious and outlines how it has precipitated the evolution of the western mind – the primitives’ undifferentiated unity with the natural world (womb), the dawn of the notion of individuality of the modern age (separation), the complete dissolution of the postmodern perspective (alienation), and now a renewed unifying participation with the cosmos. If one opens oneself and engages in this different perspective, it could render postmodernism’s criticism as unproblematic and can once again facilitate new modes of inquiry and generate meaningful discussion once again on works as great as The Odyssey. This could be the proposed opposition out of this paradigm and could shine a light for literature to come in confronting the postmodern framework. In hindsight,  to consider Nietzsche’s practical observation, “And how could I endure to be a man, if man were not also poet and reader of riddles and…a way to new dawns.”

The aesthetic and profound insights of archetypal literary criticism demand a reconsideration of the field’s re-integration into the discussion of analysis. This essay has examined several Jungian archetypes throughout Homer’s work, investigating some of its major characters. Previous arguments have explored the other facets of the practice illuminating the psychology of the ancient Greeks, anatomically analyzing how it unfolds in the subconscious of Homer’s narrative. The archetypal perspective transcends postmodern criticism and integrates both of these fields. This perspective offers fruitful discussion for future works of literature like The Odyssey and to continue the on-going dialectic of literary analysis.


~ by loganinman on March 16, 2013.

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