Panel: Unus Mundus Transcendent truth or comforting fiction?
Overwhelm and the search for meaning in a fragmented world
Ladson Hinton III, Ladson Hinton IV, Devon Hinton, Alex Hinton, US
Abstract: This panel is a series of presentations by a father and his three sons. The first is a critique of the concept of the Unus Mundus, an idea that goes back at least as far as Plato’s Cave in western intellectual history. A longing for unchanging foundational ideas lies at the core of much of our culture, psychology, and theology. The subsequent presentations describe various unforeseen, destructive results stemming from the perspective of the Unus Mundus. The first example is of persons with Alzheimer’s disease, whose singular subjectivity is often ignored because they are seen as a category. They are ‘Alzheimer-ed’, subtly enabling those around them to avoid an anxiety- producing encounter with their enigmatic otherness. Another important perspective is the modernist re-construction of city spaces that has resulted in the loss of an organic sense of containment. The lengthy horizon of the grand boulevards seemed like openings upon infinity, often provoking panic and agoraphobia, as seen in the work of Edvard Munch. Lastly, the genocidal tendencies of modern times epitomize the dangers of totalizing, Utopian ideas. Violent elimination may be visited upon groups or peoples who are deemed ‘impure’, as besmirching idealized social visions. Such examples illustrate some of the ethical dangers of conceptualizations related to the Unus Mundus.
Keywords: anthropology, agoraphobia, Alzheimer’s, Cambodia, foundational, geno- cide, infinity, Levinas, panic, subjectivity, truth, unity, unus mundus, violence, void
Introduction: Fragmentation of the Unus Mundus
Ladson Hinton III
It’s very special to be here with my sons, and to be able to share their thoughtfulness and creativity. My own task is to introduce our panel in this segment, entitled ‘Fragmentation of the Unus Mundus’. I approach this task with a bit of trepidation! As we know, the Unus Mundus lies at the core of Jung’s thought, and his privileging of this ideal reflects his longing to found an all-encompassing theory (Shamdasani 2003; Samuels 1985, p. 89ff.).
The search for universal ideas, often with Utopian implications, has been a perennial quest for philosophy and psychology. We, too, as clinicians are tempted to ‘reduce the universe to an originary and ultimate unity by way of panoramic overviews and dialectical syntheses’ (Peperzak 1997, p. 4). But Emmanuel Levinas, in a postmodernist mode, points out the negative ethical consequences that may ensue from such ways of conceiving the human condition. The ‘Face of the Other’, including our patients in all their complexity and creativity, may be subsumed to an idea. My thesis is that Jung, for all his genius, falls prey to this very danger by privileging the Unus Mundus, and that this has had important implications for analytic theory and practice. But more about this later.
1The Four Sisters of astrology sit with their full knowledge of the Order of the Heavens. Alchemy by Johannes Fabricius (Fig. 17; Diamond Books, 1994, p. 14
Jung describes the Unus Mundus as an experience where ‘opposites’ are transcended by unity, and an awareness of synchronicity becomes possible (Aziz 1990; von Franz 1975, p. 249). It serves as an implicit goal or telos, toward which a ‘spiritus lector’ (a spiritual guide in dreams or active imagination) leads the individual toward a ‘unio mentalis’ (a union of self and body/matter). This eventuates in the union of the ‘whole man’ with a transcendent ground that is presumed to be foundational (Jung 1963/1970, paras. 759–75).
This telos or goal has often taken on the status of the ‘constitutive myth’ of Jungian psychology (Gabriel & Zizˇek 2009). That is, although one can cite many sides of Jung’s writings, this particular set of assumptions tends to function, implicitly or explicitly, as the basic underpinning of Jungian thought and practice. It is his ‘solution’ to the ancient question of the ultimate truth of existence
In the postmodern era, however, one can see how such foundationalism repeats a primal error of modern thought that can be very destructive in its unforeseen effects. My three sons will provide different examples of how the foundationalist search for truth and progress, for ‘Enlightenment’, has often had unpredictable and sometimes disastrous ethical consequences. Our hope is that these dramatic examples can help free us from our implicit biases toward a reified oneness or totality.
The primal dilemma can be traced back to the origins of Western thought, especially to interpretations of father Plato and his Allegory of the Cave (Plato, Book VII). As you may recall, this parable depicts humankind as fixed in place, staring at the wall of a cave. Some distance behind them, unseen, there is a large fire, and various objects are paraded in front of the fire. The shadows of the objects are visible on the wall of the cave, in front of the denizens emplaced there, and they take those shadows as ‘reality’. Finally, one cave person is taken out into the light, where there is a different world and ‘real’ objects. . .not merely their shadows. When that person returns to the cave, however, his former compatriots will not believe him and go on staring at the shadows on the wall, believing that they are ‘reality’.
The assumption of the parable is that the ideal foundations of life have always been there, but that a befuddled mankind has lost its way (Gibson 2006, p. 159). From this point of view, ‘Inside the cave’ illustrates a view of humanity in error—an abject, ‘fallen’, and ‘lesser’ humanity. No creative event of truth can happen there because the ‘Truth’ is depicted as a pre-existing ideal world, a thing outside in the light (ibid., pp. 202–203). Such an ideal becomes the goal to be sought, the telos.
Plato’s Allegory is reminiscent of some conventional views of the analytic situation! Like the cave dwellers, we are at first unaware of the illusionary state in which we exist. When we become aware of the degree of our lostness and blindness it terrifies us, and we search for foundational certainties that will provide an escape. The fantasy of a place ‘outside’ our condition, one that transcends our sense of helplessness and suffering, continually magnetizes us (Carel 2001, p. 2). This picture has largely dominated the course of Western theology and philosophy, and is related to Jung’s conception of the Unus Mundus. Indeed, he specifically equates his viewpoint with Plato’s Allegory (Jung 1963/1970, para. 768), and describes it as restoring the ‘potential world of the first day of Creation’, the ‘eternal Ground’ of the empirical world ‘before things were divided into a multiplicity’ (ibid., para. 760).
Such utopian views valorize the possibility of seeing from an ‘objective’ position ‘outside the cave’, which is impossible; from where could that position itself be observed and validated? In an attempt to solve this problem, Jung asserts the existence of an ‘objective’, Archimedean point by positing the concept of the ‘psychoid’, a ‘non-psychic’ structure that is ‘neither mind nor matter’ 1960/1969, para. 417; para. 439, n. 130; para. 840). However, this merely shifts the illusion of objectivity and control to another level (Brooks 2009). Like other Utopian views, it ends in a tautology: how does the eye see itself? (Zˇ izˇek 2008). Jung himself sometimes raises the question of ‘whether the soul could be known through itself’, but this perspective usually becomes subsumed to his search for universals (Jung 1954, para 161 ff.; Shamdasani 2003, p. 89; p. 94ff.).
Jung’s theoretical construct, although it has inspired many practitioners as an ideal, in the end foundered. That may be due to his isolation from emerging perspectives that would have challenged the assumptions of the prevailing zeitgeist, and opened new dimensions in his work (Brooks 2009).
A broader consequence of valorizing a ‘larger, purer’ totality is that it tends to minimize the raw particulars of human suffering. Seen through the lens of the Utopian gaze, suffering is often depicted as an unfortunate but necessary dimension of the path toward an idealized unity (Levinas 1998, pp. 91–102). Levinas repeatedly points out that such a totalizing point of view tends to obscure the ethical call of the singular Face of the Other and the stark reality of useless suffering (Levinas 1969, pp. 21–30 & 194–219).
Contemporary postmodern thought offers a different view of the universe. It eschews utopian totalities that employ foundational principles. Based on speculations about an unknowable realm, such principles have no necessary relationship to the particulars of existence. In contrast, the postmodern ethos values particulars. In this view Being is always situated, and we are always divided subjects in our ‘worlds’. There is no experience of Being beyond all structure, beyond the situations in which we find ourselves (Gibson 2006, p. 45).
In contrast to visions of totality, there is a fundamental incompleteness of reality itself that terrifies us (Johnston 2008, p. 5). Things being together do not indicate that they constitute a unity; and what we tend to call ‘opposites’ are actually ‘parallax views’ that cannot be ‘reconciled’ (Zˇizˇek 2006). Our knowledge is always condemned, in Lacanian terms, to be ‘non-all’, intrinsically lacking, invariably ending in enigma. This is an ontology of gaps and abysses, and the very structure of our subjectivity is a manifestation of such divisions. Jean Laplanche has carefully delineated this view, highlighting the prominence of enigmatic elements in the earliest formation of the subject (Laplanche 1999; Hinton 2009).
As a consequence, we are ‘constitutionally unable to keep things fixed and forever immune to disruption and change’ (Lear 2000, p. 112). However, the subject, when realizing this situation, may become a ‘crack’ in the very foundation of fundamental systems. Disruptiveness offers us something precious by opening up fields of possibilities (Carel 2001, p. 6). Leaving the apparent comfort of life as a ‘normal’ automaton involves bearing the awareness of gaps or ‘black holes’ in consciousness; but such ‘cracks’ are also, paradoxically, the basis of human freedom (Zˇ izˇek 2006, pp. 25, 65, 88–90).
This reverses Plato’s journey. Consciousness or reflection indeed results in an awareness of what we creatures in the Cave lack; but a ‘higher’ unity or wholeness, a thing or substance that is the incarnation of ultimate Truth, always eludes our grasp like a phantom unicorn. The crucial point is that, in the process of descent into our cave-like depths, we may momentarily experience the void of an always-missed encounter with unity, with ‘unprethinkable being’ (Gabriel & Zˇ izˇek 2009). It is such experiences that can open the space of the subject for poetry, new thoughts, images, and sometimes laughter (ibid., pp. 26–85; Bakhtin 1984; Gibson 2006, 54–55; Hinton 2002; Johnston 2008, p. 83).2 This is the essence of the analytic task.
2The void, as the constituting principle of experience, is the basis of the subject. It cannot itself appear as such but only in images such as the uncanny stranger. The self, the subject’s manifest presence, is thus at root an appearance based upon an experience that can never itself be represented—although the inexhaustibility of aesthetic experience may touch upon this possibility (Gabriel & Zˇ izˇek 2009, pp. 79–80) This lends an uncanny quality to life (ibid., p. 20; pp. 31–32)
From this perspective psychoanalysis is not merely part of a necessary developmental unfolding, but rather it is a subversive influence involving our being in the world, a break
My sons will describe and discuss several dimensions of human experience that present deep moral challenges to any system of universal ‘explanation’. These limit-situations will dramatically underline some problematic effects of concepts of totality. Confronting such disturbing ‘errors’ can help open the way toward richer dimensions of thought and practice.
First, my son Ladson will present the disturbing picture of the ‘Alzheimer-ed’ person that shows how quickly we want to abject and disown whatever disturbs our sense of truth and order. It brings the notion of teleology quickly into doubt. What could possibly be the ‘goal’ of such suffering? Its manifestations disturb our sense of meaning and obliterate any illusion of certainty. What ‘eternal Idea’ from outside the Cave could possibly provide an explanation and justification?
Next, Devon will describe the Utopian modernist vision of a never- ending ‘progress’ that privileges moving people and products rapidly between centres of production and commerce, and has often led to the destruction of intimate human dwelling. The uncontained speed of late capitalism has resulted in the city spaces of agoraphobia, evoking the primal scream so vividly illustrated by the paintings of Edvard Munch. Virilio has described this world as a ‘Museum of Accidents’ (Virilio 2003, p. 58 ff.). This conveys the underlying, horrifying excess in our culture, a ‘Real’ that reason cannot contain.
Finally, Alex will discuss how the genocidal activities of our era are often motivated by a yearning for ‘purity’ or Truth, like the imaginary world of light outside Plato’s Cave. When the ideal is unity there is always the tendency to abject those who are cast as preventing the achievement of Utopia. The horror of genocide is a prism that magnifies the all-too-human tendency to eliminate the troubling ‘other’, whom we blame for disrupting our personal or social worlds. In our anxious yearning to escape the reality of the human condition, the ‘solution’ is all too often the eradication of the messy and troubling ‘Face of the Other’ of whole populations.
My thanks to Michael Horne for his very helpful editing.