Ego Development and Instinctual Man (4/10-Salta, Argentina)

There are certain obvious parallels between love, eros, the ‘Dionysian,’ on the one side, and power, logos, the ‘Apollonian,’ on the other. The features of ‘measured distance’ and of the principium individuationis which are associated with the Apollonian also turn out to be distinctive features of ego-consciousness—which is heroically acquired by the gradual differentiation of the young person from a primal state of identification with the mother. Thus, the experience of being a separated self begins and continues throughout the course of one’s life. The merging with a partner in the erotic transports of romantic love and the sense of being absorbed and contained by the group (the tribe, the nation, the corporation, Dallas Cowboy and Dave Matthews fans, etc.) are culturally recognized, momentary interruptions or suspensions of this state of distance or dis-identification that is basic to ego-consciousness. In such moments of erotic or collective absorption, there is often an expansive feeling that accompanies the melting away of the usually solid walls that hem in the ego. We might speak of the connection between such experiences and the ‘mother’ archetype, or the ‘Gods’ Eros and Dionysus.

The emergence of ego-consciousness depends at the outset, therefore, upon disturbing the initial state of physical, emotional, and psychic identification of the child with the mother. Later, the gradual strengthening and ‘coagulation’ of the ego involves the focusing of the conscious will and the development of our individual powers and talents. In heightening and polishing these personal powers and talents we may gain distinction within our society and obtain encouraging rewards. If, on the other hand, we allow these talents and capacities to “fust in us unused,” we run the risk of blending into the dull and featureless background of the undistinguished. The admiration and envy evoked in others by the ego that rises by its own efforts high above the lumpen masses can serve as strong incentives to those strenuous exertions that are required to hold onto one’s privileges and one’s social cachet. The acquisition of this elating and invigorating sense of power and esteem within our social and/or historical setting can become the supreme goal to which the individual ego consecrates his/her best energies and efforts. The maintenance and enlargement of his sense of power and importance have, by this point, become the unchallenged priorities of his life. He is their unquestioning, obedient servant. In remaining their servant and in continuing to make of himself the best doctor, lawyer, football- or guitar-player he can be, he serves the general culture, which rewards him, perhaps, with a handsome salary and trophies of various sizes, forms, and dress sizes. He becomes a model or index of what other egos can accomplish if they, too, are willing to make the necessary but acceptable sacrifices.

But what are those sacrifices? What might the comparatively undistinguished and undifferentiated ‘mass man’ enjoy in more plenteous abundance and reliability than the former type—the ‘achiever’ whose higher profile personal status imposes greater pressures and constraints— if, that is, the special powers of thought and/or action upon which his status is founded are not to slacken and be outstripped by the competition? Doesn’t the less differentiated ego frequently enjoy a closer, more enfolding connection with that womb or matrix of instinctual drives and energies from which the more acutely self-conscious ego has strenuously differentiated itself? There would seem, then, to be a noteworthy trade-off entailed in the intensification, focusing, and articulation of ego-consciousness—and what gets traded away, to some greater or lesser degree, is that anchoredness in the natural and self-regulating instincts that we all start off with as tit-sucking, buggar-munching, bed-wetting, poop-smearing, drooling, muling, puking little ‘human animals.’ The more complex and highly differentiated the consciousness, the greater the risk of losing one’s rootedness in the simple, natural instincts and in one’s sense of being securely grounded in his/her (or anybody else’s) body. A kind of self-alienation or dissociation from the root of one’s animal self—from the heart and the belly, as it were—can occur.

We can recognize analogies between the development of ego-consciousness, on the one hand, and art and agriculture, on the other. The as-yet uncivilized, infant psyche may be likened to a tract of earth. This plot of earth can be gradually transformed into a productive farm, but first, it must be cleared of trees and boulders. Only then can the land be profitably worked.  Before that, it is merely nature—and this corresponds to the ‘raw’ human being prior to his being provided with a language, cultural imprinting, moral instruction and an education to equip him to be a contributing member of his society. Because a productive farm is more than mere nature, it does not create itself, but depends upon the art of agri-culture for its genesis. Nevertheless, it is always rooted in—and dependent upon—nature in order to produce its fruit and grains, just as the productive ego is always rooted in its raw, natural instincts, which may be said to motorize and empower it. When these instinctual energies are weakened, damaged, or blocked, the ego suffers much as a crop suffers from drought, blight, or impoverished soil. Although the farm is rooted in and dependent upon nature as it is given, like every art, agriculture itself has something that is not merely natural or spontaneously given by nature—any more than the Mona Lisa or a Ford Taurus is spontaneously given by nature. The raw materials are given by nature, but the design and execution of these ‘works’ depend on culture. The connection between the words ‘art’ and ‘artificial’ is not an accidental or insignificant one. The most complex, comprehensive, and marvelous specimens of human consciousness depend partly upon natural endowments (which, like the bodies and genes we are born with, may either be enviable or lamentable), but the rest—perhaps the lion’s share—depends upon what use we make of our natural inheritance. This, perhaps more than any other factor, is what differentiates one person from the next.[1]

If a man feels a drive to distinguish himself through some art or virtue in order, primarily, to satisfy his vanity or to stuff his pockets with far more money than he requires for a secure existence, then we say that he prostitutes his genuine gifts in the service of his baser appetites and drives. He may nonetheless still be a great musician or scientist, and insofar as he is an exceptional musician or scientist he may rightly be said to contribute something to culture by means of his own individuation. In short, he serves two very different ends, both of which may be said to be larger than himself: the culture and his oversized, uncontrolled appetites for fame and wealth. These two very different ‘pulls’—one from above, as it were, and the other from below—can and often do coexist in one exceptional soul, who is the ‘dwarfed’ servant caught in the middle.

[1] One might be tempted to assume that because the man of distinction devotes himself to an art or vocation which sets him apart (in a variety of senses) from his fellows, he is actually serving something other than himself, while the undistinguished, comparatively artless and passive man is actually more true to his nature, and therefore is more of an authentic individual. But this would be a questionable assumption, since our collective, naturally-given psychic endowment is no more personal or individually developed by the mass man than is the cultural or technical arena within which the accomplished individual makes his/her distinctive contribution. Both ‘types’ are confronted with impersonal and collective contents/factors. The distinguished ego may be said, however, to have a more active, transformative relationship with those factors, while the other type generally assumes a more passive or merely adaptive posture towards them.

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