The ordinary human eye is capable of responding to visual stimuli or data within a certain range. We know, of course, that there is plenty of data beyond the visible light spectrum – beyond ultraviolet and infrared light—but such information transcends the bounds of ordinary human eyesight. Other instruments – electronic eyes – must be devised and utilized for such “transcendent” vision.
Likewise, each one of our psychological functions – thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation – is naturally associated with a corresponding arena or domain of distinctive experience (thoughts, feelings, intuitions, sensations), just as the eye is associated with objects within the visible light spectrum. This is not to say that the thinking function cannot perceive/apprehend a feeling-content. It can acknowledge that something is there, but that something gets automatically translated into a thought-concept – the sort of content it is equipped to deal with in its own terms. And, as we know, a feeling that is “translated” into a concept is no longer a feeling, but something quite different. In being carried across the wide border between the two functions, the feeling has been transformed into something quite alien to its original form – like a light wave being transformed into a particle, a caterpillar into a moth.
Naturally, the reverse is true, as well. When a concept or thought enters the airspace of the feeling function, a feeling value is either consciously or unconsciously assigned. This is what the feeling function does, for this is its role within the psychic economy. What it does not do is evaluate and analyze the concept as a “thinking type” would. This is not a choice or a decision made by the feeling function. It is simply beyond its power or ability to make such an analysis or logical assessment. This incapacity, however, seldom prevents the feeling function – or the decided “feeling type” – from foisting all manner of feeling judgments upon thoughts, ideas, and arguments that he/she is incapable of understanding or appreciating in their own terms, within their own proper sphere or domain.
This analogy holds true for the ordinary human ego, as well – or so it would seem. Just as the human eye is confined to visual information within a certain limited range – and just as thinking and feeling cannot help but falsify and distort phenomena that they are unfit to deal with and to properly assess – ego-consciousness, as soon as it begins to arrogate authority and to pronounce judgments upon phenomena that lie beyond its purview, proves to be reliably inept.
There are almost as many definitions of “ego” as there are egos, but for the sake of discussion we will focus on two features of ego-consciousness that are widely agreed upon: a natural tendency to literalize and a more or less “heroic” drive to bring things under control within one’s sphere of influence – either by hook or by crook. And, to prevent any misunderstanding, let me say at the outset that my aim here is not to denigrate or disparage the ego, as such, but simply to explore and assess its proper sphere of activity and its rightful jurisdiction within the larger totality of the psyche. To be sure, the ego is vulnerable to various maladies and potentially dangerous excesses, but – like the human heart, brain or liver – it serves a vital and necessary function in the “psychic economy.” When the body is afflicted with congestive heart failure or a brain tumor – the diseased organ can bring the whole organism down with it. Analogously, a perilously inflated or stunted ego will often lead to serious trouble for the individual and for those under his/her sway and influence.
With these ideas in mind, let us glance quickly at the functional role played by the ego’s tendencies to literalize and to “heroically” establish a more or less stable and secure place in the world. If we can imagine for a moment the helpless vulnerability of the human infant – or the susceptibility to suggestion, “possession,” and overpowering terrors in the primitive – we get a glimpse of the condition that exists before the ego has developed properly. The infant and the primitive are, as it were, submerged or immersed in the enveloping sea of psyche with no solid platform upon which to land. In the case of the infant, a sense of security must be provided, initially, by the mother, the father, and the external circumstances within which its fledgling identity develops. For the primitive, rituals and social roles/duties provide the exoskeletal structures that serve in lieu of a differentiated ego-complex.
Thus, without a minimally developed ego, we are at the mercy, so to speak, of the Gods – or of the elements, or Fortuna, the unconscious, etc. – while a functional ego equips us with a kind of breathing space between our “selves” and the mysterious, enfolding whole. As it happens, some human beings appear to be more favorably disposed towards this surrounding, ineffable mysterium than others, who do everything within their limited power to block it out of their awareness – usually by clinging like barnacles to everyone and everything that is soothingly familiar, predictable, diverting, and reliable.
So, if the ordinary, run-of-the-mill human ego’s essential function is to provide a more or less stable foothold within an otherwise mysterious and uncanny world and/or psyche for the “individual consciousness,” should we therefore jump to the conclusion that the establishment, cultivation, and extension of the ego’s power and sway is the proper aim of human life – and that some persons, like great athletes or musicians, are simply better at ego-ism than others? Nietzsche, as I read him, certainly comes close to such a position – if we bear in mind the fact that he shows a decided preference for what he calls “spiritualized expressions of the will to power.” He is referring here to artistic, political, and intellectual – i.e., cultural – forms of excellence. Philosophy – for Nietzsche (as well as for Nietzsche’s Plato) – is regarded as the most spiritualized expression of the will to power because it has the responsibility for humanity’s future on its conscience.
So, what about those other persons for whom the strange, the unfamiliar, and the unknown exert greater attractive power than the known, the familiar, and the securely nailed down features of life? These are persons who are more likely to find the whole arena of “normal” and “commonplace” experiences boring, cramping, and even suffocating. This impatience and dissatisfaction with the generally lawful and stable surface of everyday experience do not come from some shallow hankering after novelty and diverting variety. Instead, such dissatisfaction seems to arise from a deep skepticism about the adequacy of the ego, alone, to guide us – as humans – to a full and rounded existence. Such seekers after the mystery – beyond the deceptive veil of the familiar – have made the crucial discovery that it is the questionable or illegitimate authority of the ego that is behind this tyrannical, leveling normalcy that is revered and kept on the throne by the many – now as ever. In effect, it is collective fear and loathing for the abnormal, the pathological, the paradoxical, the anomalous, the bizarre, the uncanny – the ever-unsettling mystery of existence – that is responsible for the sovereignty or tyranny of ego over soul.
Here I have introduced a new term – soul – to denote the perspective that exists, imaginatively, in between the staleness of the habitual and the ineffability of the mystery. Jung, in attempting to give a name to this perspective that contrasts with the ego-perspective, spoke of the “transcendent function.” “Active imagination” was enjoined as a means of “dialoguing” with the “inner figures” or archetypal images that serve as the faces presented by the Mystery (of the unconscious). Of course such language and such activities – introduced at a time when positivism still had a strong purchase in most educated minds – sounded like a species of madness itself. Hence, quips like the famous maxim of Karl Kraus: “Psychoanalysis is a disease for which it purports to be the cure.”