The Inherited Image

William Blake. The Temptation and Fall of Eve, 1808. Illustration to Milton's "Paradise Lost."

William Blake. The Temptation and Fall of Eve, 1808. Illustration to Milton's "Paradise Lost."

Chicks with their eggshells still adhering to their tails dart for cover when a hawk flies overhead, but not when the bird is a gull or duck, heron or pigeon. Furthermore, if the wooden model of a hawk is drawn over their coop on a wire, they react as though it were alive—unless it be drawn backward, when there is no response.

Here we have an extremely precise image—never seen before, yet recognized with reference not merely to its form but to its form in motion, and linked, furthermore to an immediate, unplanned, unlearned, and even unintended system of appropriate action: flight to cover. The image of the inherited enemy is already sleeping in the nervous system, and along with it the well-proven reaction. Furthermore, even if all the hawks in the world were to vanish, their image would still sleep in the soul of the chick—never to be roused, however, unless by some accident of art; for example, a repetition of the clever experiment of the wooden hawk on a wire. With that (for a certain number of generations, at any rate) the obsolete reaction of the flight to cover would recur; and unless we knew about the earlier danger of hawks to chicks, we should find the sudden eruption difficult to explain. “Whence,” we might ask, “this abrupt seizure by an image to which there is no counterpart in the chicken’s world? Living gulls and ducks, herons and pigeons, leave it cold; but the work of art strikes some very deep chord!”

(From Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God Vol. 1: Primitive Mythology, 1959.)

Just as our bodies are veritable curio cabinets of vestigial organs that have outlived their obvious usefulness, our nervous systems are programmed with all kinds of anachronistic bric-a-brac including—as in the case of Campbell’s chicks—highly specific “sleeping” images capable of eliciting deep behavioral and emotional responses upon arousal.  Our artists, poets and theologians have the common goal of seeking out their triggers and mastering their willful manipulation.  Although the dormant images in the human imagination are often mysterious and surprising to us, all are undoubtedly the products of the evolutionary process:

Man has developed consciousness slowly and laboriously, in a process that took untold ages to reach the civilized state (which is arbitrarily dated from the invention of script in about 4000 B.C.). And this evolution is far from complete, for large areas of the human mind are still shrouded in darkness. What we call the “psyche” is by no means identical with our consciousness and its contents.

Whoever denies the existence of the unconscious is in fact assuming that our present knowledge of the psyche is total.  And this belief is clearly just as false as the assumption that we know all there is to be known about the natural universe.  Our psyche is part of nature, and its enigma is limitless.

(From Jung’s introduction to Man and His Symbols, 1964.)

~ by emilypothast on November 10, 2008.

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