January 14, 2022
My theme this week is “possession,” which may strike some readers as off the beaten path. But it is actually as timely as the day’s headlines—pretty much any day’s headlines, really. Something irrational has arisen from the depths of the collective mind and taken possession of as much as a third of the population of the United States, with similar symptoms elsewhere in the West. What has understandably frightened many people about this eruption is not so much the will to overthrow democracy and install some kind of fascist authoritarianism: naked self-interest is always understandable enough. But what mystifies and demoralizes is the uncanny affect that accompanies it like the luminous tail of a comet—that age-old omen of social disaster. We are witnessing a wave of uncontrolled anger, resulting in death threats to public officials and various forms of antisocial behavior, occasionally violent, combined with extreme delusional thinking and paranoid conspiracy theories. People we thought we knew—family members, friends, colleagues—are in the grip of unshakeable convictions that have nothing to do with reality. And the affect is contagious: we are in the midst not of one pandemic but two. Some cases are relatively mild, stopping at “vaccine hesitancy.” Others go full-blown QAnon. Education helps but does not always prevent breakthrough “infections.”
Irrational outbreaks may have rational triggers. Two have been adduced since Donald Trump was elected in 2016. First, that we are experiencing a backlash to enormous income inequality combined with the callous indifference of a neo-liberal economy towards the fate of ordinary people. Second, that an aging white population is becoming a minority and losing its dominant position, and is responding with increasingly virulent forms of white supremacy. In the early days of Trump’s presidency, there were heated arguments over which of these was the “real” reason for the present state of affairs. Yet I think these are not causes, only catalysts. They may help explain why the outbreak has occurred now, but they are too rational and reality-oriented to account for the sheer lunacy all around us. Let me be clear: I think it is enormously important to address economic injustice and a racism that, as I said in a previous newsletter, is driven by a fear of the Other. These have poured gasoline on the flames. Any attempt to make the United States a relatively sane place again is going to have to start by trying to minimize them. But our failure to deal with the surface problems has allowed something deeper and darker to escape and run wild.
We are all the more unnerved because the experts have let us down. None of the prestigious models of human behavior provide the slightest clue as to what is going on, let alone how to cope with it: not behaviorism, not cognitive the-mind-is-a-computational-device theories, not the medical psychiatric model based on organic illness (“let’s find a pill for it”). I might add that no political or economic theory accounts for it either, not Marxism (however post-structuralized), and certainly not neo-liberalism and other forms of “rational self-interest.” For that is exactly the point: we are faced with a collective outbreak of irrationalism, and no theory starting from the assumption that human beings are basically rational is going to help us.
The depth psychology of C.G. Jung does shed light on our current crisis, and it was reading a fascinating book by a Jungian analyst, Craig Stephenson, that inspired me to write what follows, although I hasten to add that Stephenson bears no responsibility for any blunders I may perpetrate about Jungian theory, especially as I have no training as an analyst. Still, I have been reading Jung all my life, with great intensity, and besides, I intend to steer the conversation in the direction of things that I do know something about, namely, literature and other products of the imagination. Stephenson’s book, Possession: Jung’s Comparative Anatomy of the Psyche, makes some use of my other mentor, Northrop Frye, and I want to extend some of its observations, because “possession” happens to be a key term in Frye’s critical vocabulary.
The word “possession” in popular imagination—and we are speaking here of the dark side of the imagination, the mental power that constructs reality—conjures up, to use the inevitable term, demonic possession as it is familiar from the remnants of Christian tradition. In other words, it means something like our memories of The Exorcist, of rotating heads and projectile vomiting. Behind such fictions lies a historical background of actual demonic possessions, such as the possession of an entire convent of Ursuline nuns in Loudun, France in 1632, made famous by Aldous Huxley in The Devils of Loudun (1952), an event that Stephenson discusses. He does not discuss the American parallel, the Salem witch trials, presumably because he is interested in the actual psychological phenomenon of possession and not the paranoid persecution of people alleged to be possessed. It was, after all, the Salem community that hanged the women accused of witchcraft who were the ones truly possessed. In his play The Crucible, Arthur Miller makes the Salem persecutions an allegory of the paranoid conspiracy theory of McCarthyism. Witchcraft accusations involving young women having erotic relations with the Devil bear some resemblance to QAnon, with its theory of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. Anyone who can believe in Satan-worshipping pedophiles is clearly possessed by something, something that is not the less “real” because it is psychological rather than supernatural.
The imagination is the home of human life, but that home can be haunted. I am no analyst, but for me this is lived experience. My mother was paranoid schizophrenic, blessedly “normal” when on her anti-psychotic drugs, but off them she would tell you that my father, from whom she was divorced, was the head of the Mafia and ran a prostitution ring with his second wife. It was more or less the same fantasy, the demonic entangled with the erotic, but utterly real to her. Are the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth “real,” an attempt to flatter King James, who wrote an entire book called Demonology, or a mere psychological fiction? The point of the play is that that is a false distinction: once you step outside of consensual reality, you enter a realm in which “nothing is but what is not.”
In Jung’s “comparative anatomy” of the psyche (Stephenson’s term: page references henceforth are to his book) the ego, the “I” of ordinary consciousness and ordinary sense of reality, is not the whole of the psyche. There are also “autonomous psychic complexes,” other parts of the mind of which the ego is largely unconscious. Stephenson has a gift for locating eloquent passages in Jung’s own writing that articulate his central point, that possession is neither some obsolete form of religious hysteria nor a marginal form of psychopathology. Rather, Jung emphasizes “the degree to which these pathological symptoms occur in ‘normal’ psychology” (115). Ordinary consciousness is possessed, taken over by something outside itself, far more often than we would like to believe. For example:
They may take the form of fluctuations in the general feeling of well-being, irrational changes of mood, unpredictable affects, a sudden distaste for everything, psychic inertia, and so on. Even the schizoid phenomena that correspond to primitive possession can be observed in normal people. They, too, are not immune to the demon of passion; they, too, are liable to possession by an infatuation, a vice, or a one-sided conviction…. (115)
The ego would like to think it is constant and has it all together, but that is merely the social mask that Jung calls the persona. No one has it all together: under the mask are the “fluctuations” of an identity that is never fully unified. Even more resonantly:
We know today that in the unconscious of every individual there are instinctive propensities or psychic systems charged with considerable tension. When they are helped in one way or another to break through into consciousness, and the latter has no opportunity to intercept them into higher forms, they sweep everything before them like a torrent and turn men into creatures for whom the word “beast” is still too good a name. They can then only be called “devils.” To evoke such phenomena in the masses all that is needed is a few possessed persons, or only one. Possession, though old-fashioned, has by no means become obsolete; only the name has changed. Formerly they spoke of “evil spirits,” now we call them “neuroses” or “unconscious complexes.” Here as everywhere the name makes no difference. The fact remains that a small unconscious cause is enough to wreck a man’s fate, to shatter a family, and to continue working down the generations like the curse of the Atrides. If this unconscious disposition should happen to be one which is common to the great majority of the nation, then a single one of these complex-ridden individuals, who at the same time sets himself up as a megaphone, is enough to precipitate a catastrophe. (35)
Jung is undoubtedly thinking of Hitler, but in 2022 it is impossible not to think of Donald Trump. Jung even understood the role of the modern mass media in precipitating the catastrophe: elsewhere he speaks of “journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world” (115). Jung formulated his psychological theory partly from empirical evidence gathered in his clinical experience as a psychiatrist, but just as much from the need to understand what had brought about two world wars—really one war with a short breather so the armies could reload. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (1921) is one of the central modern poems because it describes what is still going on a century later: things fall apart, the center cannot hold; the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity; and a rough beast is ready to be born. Northrop Frye’s foundational work Fearful Symmetry was written in the shadow of World War II, as was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and both deal with collective demonic possession.
Another way in which Jung is useful to us is that he was not happy with the tendency of the human sciences, including psychology, to mimic the objectivity of the natural sciences through authoritative-sounding abstraction. In doing so, psychology loses touch with actual human experience, which is not conceptual but imaginative. So, while he sometimes employed jargon terms like “autonomous psychic complexes,” he more often used the language of the unconscious itself, which is symbolic, yet sensory and particular. A complex that is split off from the ordinary personality and develops a mind of its own—or rather, is a mind of its own—he would personify, because that is the form in which we encounter such complexes, in dreams, in projections onto other people, but also in mythology and literature. Instead of an autonomous complex, he spoke of the shadow, the embodiment of desires, fears, hatreds, and fantasies that we may not approve of, may be ashamed of, may be sometimes afraid of—and yet secretly continue to feel. If the personal shadow is repressed, and thereby split off pathologically enough from the ordinary ego personality, it can produce schizoid or multiple personality disorder effects. More often, however, the ego will be oppressed by a paranoid feeling of threat coming from an alien Other and attempt to expel the threat by projecting the shadow onto other people or groups. Hence racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, hatred of homeless people, and so on. Projection is an attempt to deny that the real Other is within, that, in the famous phrase from the comic strip Pogo, we have met the enemy and he is us.
But we may also be possessed by the shadow. It may perpetrate a successful coup: the political implications of the metaphor are of great import. As usual, Jung, like a good teacher, brings the idea down to earth with examples from common experience: “’What’s got into him today?’ ‘He is driven by the devil,’ ‘hag-ridden,’ etc. In using these somewhat worn metaphors we naturally do not think of their original meaning” (112). In a passage from the book Man and His Symbols (1964), written shortly before his death, Jung says of the contemporary individual,
He is blind to the fact that, with all his rationality and efficiency, he is possessed by “powers” that are beyond his control. His gods and demons have not disappeared at all; they have merely got new names. They keep him on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an insatiable need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, food—and, above all, a large array of neuroses. (71)
What is this apparently demonic Other lurking within us, always trying to seize the microphone, to gain control, and sometimes succeeding, whether just momentarily or in the form of a lifelong obsession? The personal shadow, if repressed and not attended to, may be the gateway for the entry of the collective, archetypal shadow, symbolized by the Devil himself, which is far more powerful and far more malignant. In the Catholic tradition, this is the meaning of “original sin,” as elaborated by theologians like Augustine, who spoke of the evil inherent from birth even in supposedly innocent children. Think of a child having a tantrum, one of those totally out-of-control tantrums in which he or she gets red in the face, screams hateful things, possibly even becomes violent. Then think of the passengers on planes or customers in stores throwing very similar tantrums, a tendency greatly on the increase today. What is the essence of such tantrums? I want my every wish granted, and I want it now, as if I were a god—and I will be consumed by a nihilistic rage if I am denied. Think of countless descriptions from inside the White House from those working at close quarters with Donald Trump, whose frequent tantrums are always described as childlike. The child of this description is a spoiled child. This is not the rage of deprivation, which might be understandable, even justifiable, but the rage of those who have grown up with power and privilege that has removed them from the demand to be socialized. Historically, it is the rage of the mad emperors, the Neros and Caligulas. In modern times it is the rage of absolute dictators like Idi Amin or Gaddafi or Bolsanaro. In Freudian terms it is an id held in check in normal people by a combination of repression and the ego’s self-restraint, using as weapon the guilt bestowed by a superego or conscience. Barely held in check, though, and never totally defeated. The super villain, the serial killer of slasher movies: they always come back no matter how many times you kill them.
If this is basic human nature, then we have a pessimistic view of humanity and history, as we do in the cyclical decline-and-fall theories of Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents and Spengler in The Decline of the West. But that may not be the whole story. The demonic implies a willful rejection of its opposite, which is love, Eros, connection, the positive aspect of the imagination. And love has its own kind of possession, at least the kind of romantic love that descends from the Courtly Love tradition of the Middle Ages. The original Courtly Love poets, the troubadours, never tired of speaking of love as a kind of seizure, as rapture, which is related to the word “raptor.” Dante warned of the danger of being “swept away” by such a rapture through making the punishment of the Lustful a gigantic whirlwind, but his love for Beatrice was a spiritualized and redemptive form of the same experience. A number of central Romantic poems speak of a possession that takes place in a natural setting, a possession in nature that may be a possession by nature, or more precisely by a spirit immanent in and uniting both the natural environment and the speaker. In Coleridge’s “The Eolian Harp,” this possessing spirit is symbolized once again by a wind that blows through all things. It is a common observation that the words for spirit in all three Biblical languages have the root meaning of breath or wind: Hebrew ruach, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus (hence “inspiration”).
There are social forms of possession that are the opposite of the demonic mob or cult. An individual form of spiritual possession is conversion, such as that of Paul, who was blinded, thrown to the ground, and addressed by Christ himself. Paul’s possession is in fact permanent: he speaks of his identity after his conversion as “I, yet not I, but Christ in me.” The collective form of possession in the New Testament is Pentecost, in which the spirit descends in the form, once again, of wind, along with tongues of flame, and unites the people in Agape, or spiritual love, symbolized by the power to speak and understand all languages. Spiritual possession unites human beings with one another and also with God, who is ultimately “all in all” (I Corinthians 15:28). Unlike that of a cult or a mob, it is a unity produced by self-sacrifice rather than by domination. Moreover, those possessed by the spirit may defeat and exorcise those possessed by the demonic. Jesus spends a rather surprising amount of time casting out demons, including those who, like the Republicans supporting the January 6 insurrection, are legion, and who are appropriately driven out to possess a herd of swine.
I do not think it is just terminological possessiveness that inclines me to include material possession, that which is nine tenths of the law, in this psychological perspective. People who are obsessively greedy and hoarding are possessed: this is the psychological profile of the 1%, who have more than they can ever spend yet who cannot stop grasping for more, destabilizing our entire society in the process. Such greed is pathological, an addiction. The same is true of imperialism, the urge to conquer more and more and more, the power and wealth and “national security” acquired being clearly a rationalization covering a compulsion. In The Dispossessed, Ursula LeGuin depicts an anarchist society that is trying to overcome the addictive acquisitiveness of capitalism. The epigraph is from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “In order to possess what you do not possess, you must go by the way of dispossession.” The capitalists and imperialists who oppose the anarchist society regard it as an existential threat, despite the fact that it poses no military danger whatever.
Stephenson spends some amount of time sifting the evidence from anthropologists studying non-Western societies in which possession may be sometimes negative, sometimes positive, and sometimes paradoxically both at once. The prophets of the Old Testament, like shamans, heard a spiritual voice while in a trancelike state; so did the Delphic oracle and, in Virgil’s Aeneid, the Cumaean Sibyl, who spoke with the voice of the god himself. A whole line of mystics and visionaries in the Christian tradition experienced possession, from the love-ecstasy of St. Theresa to the revelatory ecstasy of such visionaries as Jakob Boehme, Emmanuel Swedenborg, and William Blake, despite the discomfort, and occasionally the persecution, of the institutional Church.
Both creative inspiration and creative interpretation are forms of possession. Stephenson, as an analyst, is naturally interested in understanding the dynamics of mutual possession between analyst and analysand in a therapeutic session, the hopefully benign folie à deux termed transference and counter-transference. What interests me as a literary critic is how artistic inspiration likewise is never solitary: it always takes two, even if one is internal, like a Muse. In his essay “Expanding Eyes,” whose title, taken from Blake, gave me the title for this newsletter and my podcast, Northrop Frye says, “In the study of literature the element of personal authority, surrendering one’s own imagination to that of some master of it, cannot be eliminated, and the relation of master and disciple always remains at its centre” (394). Frye became possessed by Blake when, as a student, he was assigned to write an essay on Blake’s poem Milton: the possession took the form of an epiphany somewhere about three in the morning. But there is more to the story, for Milton is about the possession of Blake by his mentor, Milton, whose spirit, at the climax of what passes for plot in the poem, leaves Eternity, returns to the world of the living, and enters Blake through his left foot. So the possession forms a tradition recreating a vision through time, from Milton to Blake to Frye and, yes, to me, reading Fearful Symmetry in a dorm room at the age of nineteen, never to be the same again.
Reading is always a complex, paradoxical process of being possessed and possessing, no matter who is doing the reading, not just creative writers and critics. The common reader may be possessed by a work, a writer, or a series. The quality of the possession may vary from cultism to genuine devotion, and I would be slow to judge whether fan fiction, for example, is a good or bad thing in any particular instance. And literary possession is like any other form of falling in love: you never know. Just today one of my favorite columnists, Arwa Mahdawi, a self-described millennial, casually made mention of her passion for… Wilkie Collins! Who would have guessed? I was totally delighted.
We begin possessed by a book or an author or even a whole genre or tradition. But, as Frye says in an essay titled “Criticism, Visible and Invisible,” “The end of criticism and teaching, in any case, is not an aesthetic but an ethical and participating end: for it, ultimately, works of literature are not things to be contemplated but powers to be absorbed” (155). At the end of the essay he speaks of “the inner possession of literature as an imaginative force to which all study of literature leads” (161). One of his lecture series was titled “Literature as Possession.” At the end of his career, Frye’s interest in this paradox extended to the power of the Bible to possess its readers, sometimes by a single verse, a power that has been given the traditional name of kerygma. But in the end the reader possesses the Bible, internalizes it, just as the God who created the universe is taken inside the worshipper in the form of the Eucharist, so that the kingdom is both without and within, a paradox Frye calls interpenetration, a mutual possession.
Powers to be absorbed: in the significantly titled Words with Power, Frye explores not only the kerygma of the Bible but the kerygmatic possibilities of literature itself. In her column in Salon.com for December 22, 2021, Amanda Marcotte asked why the far right has such a visceral hatred of Dr. Anthony Fauci, a mild-mannered doctor whose family has been subjected to death threats because of his advice about Covid. Her answer is shrewd: because he represents knowledge and the expanded vision that comes with knowledge, together with the calm, sane authority such knowledge imparts. They are shamed by their ignorance, furious that the delusions they cling to are exposed. For the same reason, Marcotte says, they hate higher education, fearing that their children’s eyes will be expanded to a vision beyond the paranoid psychoses of their parents. The power of the imagination is not the kind of power such people understand, but it is a power nonetheless, and may yet transform the world. They also serve who only sit and read.
Frye, Northrop. “Criticism, Visible and Invisible.” In The Critical Path and Other Writings on Critical Theory 1963-1975. Edited by Jean O’Grady and Eva Kushner. Volume 27 of The Collected Works of Northrop Frye. 147-161. Originally published in The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Literature and Society. Methuen, 1970.
Frye, Northrop. “Expanding Eyes.” In Collected Works, volume 27 (see above). 391-410. Originally published in Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society. Indiana University Press, 1976.
Stephenson, Craig E. Possession: Jung’s Comparative Anatomy of the Psyche. Revised edition. Routledge, 2017.