The Ancient Well

‘Heed your dreams and find your soul!’ — AUSTIN TAPPAN WRIGHT

THERE is a well on the slope of a mountain in Greece, at which it was once the local custom to fill the water jars. The well had a curious name, Hippocrene, which, being interpreted, is ‘the fountain of the horse.’ The horse in question had wings, and although he has been the cause of much perplexity, not to say humiliation, to successive schools of equestrians, his very existence has been doubted by skeptics of these and of better times. After which allusion to the fantasy of the past, which may not be altogether fantasy, I shall approach the fantasy of the present, which may not be altogether fantasy either.

The systems of psychology which are connected with the names of Freud, Adler, and Jung have been subjects of debate for many years, but are still involved in mists of ignorance and controversy. Very few people really know anything about the ideas, and what they do know has usually been acquired at the dinner tables of persons who know even less. With distinguished exceptions the disciples of the three principal thinkers have been badly equipped and much too apt to take up furiously defensive attitudes with respect to matters they do not wholly comprehend. And the commonsense conclusion of the outsider has not unnaturally been that here was another pseudoscientific word war and a field of battle where guerilla-charlatans were enriching themselves at the expense of noncombatants and the wounded.

The conclusion is not unnatural, but, like so many not unnatural conclusions, it is unfair. The three protagonists differ much less on points of main importance than would appear from the invectives of their disciples, whose myth-making propensities have created the sinister old man of Vienna and the dangerous mystic of Zurich. Naturally their philosophical attitudes are not identical, but Jung, for instance, is quite prepared to admit the validity of the methods of his rivals with respect to numerous persons who have benefited by those methods. And I am not sure that the differences of interpretation observable are so wide as the different terminologies incident to pioneer work would indicate. For example, the ‘id,’ a concept due to Freud, meaning the instincts as a totality, seems to me not forty rows of apple trees away from ‘the collective unconscious,’ a concept due to Jung, which Freudians are apt in bad moments to belabor.

There has, of course, been much battle at this point. The idea for some reason had the power of engendering heat. Many people flew into fine scholastic rages about it. The kind of thinker who is annoyed when a fact betrays a tendency to escape from a symmetrical system raised his howl and withdrew, swearing that, whatever might be empirically discovered, he would abide forever faithful to the one true faith he was bred in. This, of course, is not the way to advance thought or even to refute it.

Roughly, and in the proverbial but not always clarifying nutshell, Jung’s notion was this. Across the totality of our psychic life at any moment a boundary is drawn. On one side is what we call the conscious, that part of life of which we are aware. On the other side is literally everything else that could conceivably pass the boundary sometime. So far in accord with everyone. But here things begin to get a little different, for Jung, on the basis of many observed facts, came to the conclusion that the unconscious was itself divisible. He was sure that there were elements in it that were due to the fact that Smith was Smith, but he was equally sure that there were other elements which were due to the fact that Smith was an historic animal. These latter he proposed to call collective — that is to say, elements generally apparent in the beast. Smith obviously has individual traits, but he has collective ones as well. And just as his physical embryology repeats the history of his evolution, so does his psychological embryology. In this I see nothing to cause anxiety. But you never can tell when, where, or for what reason you may arouse the intellectual adversary.

I ought perhaps to go into the implications of what Jung believes he has discovered. From the personal unconscious with its elements peculiar to the individual, he has discriminated the collective, in which he finds entities, knots of energy, group associations, which, with some variation, are common to race or sex, and in some instances to all mankind. In dream and in daydream these entities appear. And in spite of the fury of the behaviorist, who (Professor Joad acutely remarks) has taken up materialism just as the other scientists dropped it, I am quite as much persuaded of the reality of these entities as I am of any reflex that ever was conditioned. For these newly discriminated factors in the unconscious Jung proposed the name ‘archetypal image’ or ‘archetype’ — meaning a symbol with which the unconscious mind has been familiar for a very long time, perhaps from the beginning.

To avert a misunderstanding at this point, it should be said that this statement does not involve anything like innate ideas. The archetypes are not conceived of as inherited. They are thought of as images toward which a predisposition is inherited, as a preference for animal food is inherited by a tiger. And the kinds of images toward which we are unconsciously predisposed are as various as our dreams and our myths, which have been rightly called the dreams of the race. Ships, horses, the conventional emblems of the great religions, wings, the symbolic descent under the earth, the puer œternus, the wise woman (these two, perhaps, contradictions in terms), the snake, the hero — all these and many more are elements of the archetypal geometry which organizes life in the Bermuda Deep of the psyche. And what comes up from that profound unknown into the narrow day of the conscious has an awe-inspiring phosphorescence of its own. And it carries for every man a force and interest not possessed by the casual phenomena which can be traced to his personal experience, his everyday associations.

At this point the reader would perform his role in a classic and satisfactory manner if he would be so good as to ask: ‘What has all this got to do with literature?’ To which the writer, who has been artfully pipe-laying for the question, may then reply with an air of overwhelming finality: ‘Almost everything.’ And he might well add: ‘Particularly so with respect to poetry.’ Whether or no the reader is in agreement with the views expressed in the preceding paragraphs, he will see that an acceptance of those views at least permits one to form a definition of poetry that has some satisfactory aspects, though ultimate validity is not claimed for it. To the writer, poetry appears to be that form of communication whose important function is to touch and arouse the ancient and permanent elements in the spiritual structure of Man by symbol and measured, rhythmical intelligible sound.

‘By symbol’ seems to me clear and, I should think, to most people acceptable, but the final defining phrase perhaps should be dwelt on a little. The measured rhythm (and measure distinguishes verse from prose, without prejudice) which is the body of poetry as the symbol is the soul (and eloquent prose may have the same soul) has itself the quality of an archetype. And those moderns who, on what they style logical grounds, have rejected metre, or even rhyme, are not to be congratulated on choosing such a handicap. They have elected to dispense with whole categories of unconscious sympathies between their readers and themselves, and in the pursuit of personal originality have ignored deep-seated collective instincts common to genius and ordinary mankind. This does not mean, of course, that something new and strange is never to take place, any more than it means that a tree should never put forth new leaves and new branches, though it does imply that a tree ought not to put forth lobster claws. But the new must have a tincture of the primordial, and the strange will derive its strength from ancient and shadowy relations with the familiar. This last statement has the force of a law. And it perfectly explains why the extreme positions of what are called schools vanish automatically because of their failure to connect themselves with the living, growing, immortal unconscious that remains the same the more it changes.

The common term in poetry is hard to find, and when found may appear vague enough. A category that includes the wrath of Achilles, the lament for Lesbia’s sparrow, the blasting of the character of Shaftesbury, and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is varied enough in all conscience. But it does not take much penetration to see how Homer and Dryden, by image and sound, have evoked from our depths as from their own the original ‘unconscious pattern’ of anger, though one chants in oceanic hexameters and one in the stately, confined, and pointed couplet of the English Augustans. Behind both, if you go far enough, is a war dance. Behind every poem, properly so called, is an archetype.

The greatest of American Orientalists has pointed out in the introduction to his version of Kalidasa that every one of the great epics contains among other things a great voyage. The trail of the wanderer is over them all, the archetypal trail. No voyage, no epic. Baldur and Loki are in all great song. Achilles did not die by the well-benched ships. Heavily disguised, he dashed in vain against the Spanish windmills. Nor do I think it sheer accident that the last adventure of Odysseus should be to behold the Mount of Purgatory on the horizon of the remotest sea. That mountain itself did not appear for the first time in the Divine Comedy. The hero that stole the fire had been riveted to its crest before Christian mythology was breeched. And Dante descending into the horror of Hell was himself following the track of the hero Gilgamesh, whose name he never had heard.

If you’ve run into this sort of interpretation before, attribute it to the proper authors and carry on. It serves to exemplify the fact that the great poets are in league with archetypes. The little ones, I fear, are principally in league with stereotypes.

This last observation at once leads to some remarks on the contemporary attitude toward contemporary poetry. Many commonplaces are to be heard on this subject. One of the prize ones is ‘I should have liked it better in prose.’ Unhappily the complete and intelligent man who utters that sort of utterance has generally some right to utter it. The poem to which he alludes, on examination, proves to be in some sense only half a poem. It has the form, but lacks the vital informing element. And, this being the Age of Reason (though I am not alone in seeing no real grounds for so defining it), the critic protests against clothing current ideas in an archaic costume. No man in his senses ever wanted ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ in prose. But now every mistrustful publisher in America and England is, by fair means or foul, trying to get his dependent ‘poets’ to write novels instead of epics, or, for the matter of that, instead of lyrics.

The explanation is obvious. For the moment the poets, upset by thoroughly unimportant conscious problems of public policy and artistic technique, have cut loose from the great symbolic archetypes. Robert Bridges did not, Æ did not, A. E, Housman did not, and Robert Frost did not. Let us keep silent concerning those who did. You might just as well, or even better, try to put Euclid or thermodynamics into Papal pentameters as to put into verse what most of the moderns are trying to put into it. I don’t care whether it is personal idiosyncrasy or Marxian economics, private pettishness or AngloCatholicism. Poetry won’t march on those terms. Nevertheless, anything whatever is a fit subject for poetry, if the archetypes are there to carry it. And nothing whatever is, if they are not. There is an apposite story about Rupert Brooke and Lytton Strachey. Strachey, with his scorpion wit, had taken the skin off the back of the young Georgians till Brooke could stand no more. ‘Lytton,’ he said reproachfully, ‘what do you expect of the modern poets?’ In his effeminate and infuriating falsetto Strachey replied, ‘Passion!’ What he really meant was archetypes. The modern poets have personal passion to burn, but it is not rich in collective British thermal units.

You can extend this notion all over the arts. What have Van Gogh and Gauguin that Picabia has not? If anything, he is their intellectual superior, which is no compliment. But. the archetypes shout from their canvases — the old things that were once called universals and have since become something with a specific meaning. The intellectual painter, for his part, has gone a-whoring after the Baal of abstraction, whose final absurdity is the ultimate zero. As for music, Stravinsky’s cry is, ‘ Back to Bach! ’ He has no intention of weakly imitating the Master, but he knows where the archetypes are.

There is fun and there is hope in the new psychology. It tells us all kinds of entertaining things. It suggests the possibility of a better method with respect to what someone has called ‘ the prenatal care of ideas.’ It hints that some day we may know more of the strange process of the gestation of a poem, which would be interesting whether useful or no. From the palpitating second when the symbol appears in the mind with the startling suddenness of a great fish breaking water, a suddenness which carries the implication that the symbol had its own existence before it was consciously realized, through the ancillary flashes and the painful struggle with the intellectual difficulties implicit in the image, whether it be a clear-cut picture, a consonance of cadences, or a shadowy mood, what subject is there in the world within or the world without more intrinsically exciting? Nor will the investigation of the elements of this process detract from the interest. Biologists do not love their children less because they know more about chromosomes than other people.

If nothing else had come out of these new, enigmatic, and, to many of us, unconvincing ideas, for the poet anyhow something has happened. For him a continent, dimly guessed and timidly visited in the past, has been unveiled, and lands long since wasted and deserted have taken on their original beauty and interest. The inner world is once again full of huge cloudy symbols of a high romance. Dead allegory has become live value. In a time enslaved by the fiction of objective reality, mythology is reborn, which does not mean fauns stealing groceries out of your icebox. The god is in the grove and the nymph at the fountain. ‘It is good. They belong there.’ The dream side of things is restored to dignity, not as a method of predicting the fall of kingdoms or the trend of the market, but as something lovely, unhackneyed, and needful to be known. And the whole spectacle of mental life has grown larger, as it should, for we have drawn nearer to it. Nor is there one facet of its strange crystalline structure which does not gleam with vivider fluorescence as it is struck by the cosmic radiation from the invisible deep.

It is the glory of the now psychology to have pointed out to us that the water system installed by those sanitary engineers, the philosophical materialists, has distinct limitations. That system has distributed a dubious liquid all over city. The new thinkers — and Jung in particular — suggest that it will be wise on our part to carry our jars to the ancient well on the slope of the mountain. While we are drawing water from the clear fountain, there is just a chance that we might see the biologically improbable horse with wings, which would be pleasant, no matter how many roughriders he has thrown.