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Jungian Analyst Marion Woodman on the American Psyche by Pythia Peay

Twenty-three years ago, I began interviewing psychologists and psychoanalysts for their insights into the American psyche, a project that culminated in the publication of America on the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture. Recently, while preparing to begin work on the second volume of America on the Couch, I came across an unpublished interview with Marion Woodman, the renowned Canadian Jungian analyst and beloved author, lecturer, and workshop leader on the psychology of eating disorders and the repression of the feminine principles of body wisdom, relatedness, and depth in our achievement-driven Western culture. Currently in retirement, Woodman’s work continues to touch a chord, and her books have sold over 200,000 copies worldwide, with fifteen editions in seven languages.

Conducted in 1994, my dialogue with Woodman delved into issues surprisingly relevant in the new Trump era. With the president’s proposals to eliminate Federal funding for such programs as The National Endowment for the Arts, The National Endowment for the Humanities, and the CPP (Corporation for Public Programs), Woodman’s perspectives on the importance of the arts to the health of a culture take on added significance. So, too, are her perceptive insights into America’s materialism, the significance of our multicultural society and its role in the rise of a “new global culture,” the psychological differences between Americans and Canadians, and how our Revolutionary War background shaped America’s national character—for better and for worse.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Pythia Peay: I’d like to begin by asking you to comment on one of America’s bedrock principles: the “myth of progress,” or the idea of continual improvement.

Marion Woodman: If we’re talking about what is fundamentally wrong in the culture, then for me the whole idea of progress at a material level is false. I believe that if a culture is estranged from art and the theater, and music and dance are no longer working within the context of soul in the culture, then nothing happens. It’s empty: tinkling brass and sounding cymbals. And historically, that’s when a culture becomes decadent, and starts to rot from the inside.

PP: And you’re saying this is because of America’s emphasis on material wellbeing as the primary expression of our myth of progress?

MW: Yes. In addition, America’s quest to become the “ideal” society and the saviors of the world also separates its culture from creativity and the imagination. That is a gross inflation, and it stems partly from America’s lack of courage to accept its shadow side.

PP: Which is?

MW:  Which is that people from other countries look at America and see it as totally engrossed in its own comfort and seduced by its own perfectionist ideals, which have nothing to do with reality.

PP: Are there psychological differences between Canadians and Americans?

MW: I would say that the fundamental issues are very similar. But there are some important differences. Canadians are more introverted, and less sure of themselves. They also don’t have a huge stake in being the saviors of the world. But they do have a kind of central, core integrity. By that I mean that Canadians believe in their own country, and if they were put to the test I think their strength would manifest.

But the fundamental difference between the two countries is that Canadians are the “good children” who “stayed with mother.” And Americans are the rebels. So we Canadians sit on this side of the border looking at our rebel brothers.

PP: When you say that Canadians are the “good children” who “stayed with mother,” you mean that they stayed with England?

MW: Yes, and that makes a fundamental difference in a culture. Your ancestors went through the anguish of breaking with their mother country [Britain], even fighting and killing the soldiers of “the mother.” Whereas our ancestors lost to those rebels, and then fled to Canada, where the government remained under the dominion of the Queen.  As a result, the Canadian personality doesn’t have that fiery “we did it!” spirit: the hero! In a Canadian personality, we simply are who we are. Too much is taken for granted in our country; through our “sleepiness,” much could be lost.

PP: But breaking with the mother country in such a violent way must also have been a psychological trauma for the American revolutionaries.

MW: I was recently in Williamsburg, Virginia. In the documentary [Williamsburg—Story of a Patriot]* they portrayed all the young rebels as going through a real agony of spirit about whether or not to fight England. And that gave me a huge awakening as to the ritual one goes through in order to grow up. One could say, for example, that it was maturity [for the American revolutionaries] to rebel, and immaturity for them not to rebel.

PP: So are you saying that, in a sense, Canada hasn’t suffered through it’s own individuation process by separating from England, as America did?

MW: Yes. But I also think American culture has become stuck in its individuation in the rebel hero phase. You can see that mythic archetype playing itself out in the movies, such as Westerns, and in other forms of violent expression in the media.

PP: So if America remains stuck in the adolescent “rebel hero” myth, then what would be the next phase of our culture’s psychological developmental process?

MW: That would bring me around to what I said in the beginning of our interview: when a culture doesn’t make room for ritual and imagination, and if spiritual values are taken out of the center of the culture, then what is left? And if there is no genuine suffering taking place at the soul level [of the culture], then the music is not new; the ballet is not new; the theater is not new.

And if there is no ritual that people believe in—and ritual in this context means undergoing a [psychological or spiritual] death, a period of being in the dark hole of chaos, followed by a rebirth—then people don’t truly grow up. In a ritualistic society, for example, young people really believe that during their culture’s coming-of-age rites, they may die. Through these rituals they have to prove that they are strong enough and mature enough to enter the adult world, which also means they have to know and understand the culture they are moving into. The older people educate them about their culture by telling them stories. Well, who’s interested in stories in our culture? So you see, the culture itself, from my point of view, is no longer organic. And once the culture fails, civilization fails.

But I also believe that there is a new global culture being called for—and that means that every country is going to have to surrender its selfish nationalism and open up to a global community. The earth has moved from tribe to group to country and then to international trade laws and international connection—and now even these systems are too small. We are moving towards global community, and in the process narrow [nationalistic] loyalties will have to be surrendered to the larger whole.

PP: Does America’s history of multiculturalism, and its ongoing efforts to contain within its borders different ethnicities and nationalities, provide a model for what the rest of the world is beginning to experience?

MW: I think so. To learn to value each other despite cultural and language differences is a huge reality—and I use the word reality, because everybody can say they believe in multiculturalism—but it’s another thing to get along with the person next door. And I don’t see how that can come without love. But if love isn’t rooted in suffering, it’s only skin deep. Only when a person has suffered through the recognition of their limitations, weaknesses, and violent tendencies, and really knows who they are, can they truly love somebody else, and accept the totality of that other person’s strengths and weaknesses.

PP: Your insights are valuable because many are seeking a deeper psychological understanding of America. Individuals have done inner work around understanding themselves in terms of their own personal mothers and fathers—but now many are also beginning to reflect on the influences of the “cultural” mother and father.

MW: There is no cultural mother! That is the biggest problem. It’s such a huge irony because the material world is the goddess of the culture. And yet Mater, matter, also means Mother, and without that there’s no deep sense in the body of loving, cherishing, and nurturing the body, because we have a culture that condemns the love of the body. That’s one of the culture’s biggest shadows. What’s the point of living if all the joys of the senses are muted? With no imagination or freedom of expression through the body, then what’s the point of living? Might as well take Prozac and remain numb to pain.

PP: So when you say we lack a “cultural mother,” I wonder if this ties into our relationship with England. Is there a link there in the sense that because we rejected the mother country—

MW: I [America] don’t need mother—

PP: I [America] separated in a violent, traumatic way—and I [America] am still stuck in that.

MW: And the compensation for that lack of Mother in the culture is to turn all that energy into creating security at the material level.

PP: And because we lack connection to that inner, nurturing spirit of the Mother . . .

MW: Then therefore we can rape the earth. We can cover her with concrete and kill animals in the name of money. And that rejection of nature also manifests in the rejection of our own bodies. Western culture has had centuries of experiencing the body as fundamentally evil, such as the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

PP: So what would our culture look like, how would it be different if we had a deeper connection with that more nurturing archetype of the Mother that you’re describing. Would we be so driven?

MW: We would be able to relax into our own selves. We would be able to relax into our own bodies. We wouldn’t have to justify our existence. We wouldn’t have to work so hard to be somebody, because we already are somebody. But how many people honestly believe that?

PP: Hardly anyone I know.

MW: We also would not find words like surrender or receptive dangerous.

PP: Or dependency.

MW: These words would not be considered dangerous at all. The fact is that we all have to live a surrendered life, in that we are dependent on each other, and on nature; we are the victims of floods, tornadoes, and volcanoes—all these things are out of our control. And if we think we can conquer God, whether in nature or within ourselves, we have another thing coming. But I see the “Feminine,” the Mother, as the manifestation of God in nature, and in our bodies. We simply have to recognize that instead of thinking about this glorious future that we’re going to have—if we can just get enough money or success—all we really have is the present moment. The Feminine lives in the present. The body lives in the present.

PP: What comes to mind as I listen to you is the collective breakdown the culture is going through in terms of values. Because most people don’t know anymore what their values really are.

MW: And there’s no way of finding out what your values are if you can’t turn within and go inside. In this country there’s a huge extraversion: somebody out there is going to hear me and tell me what my values are. And that’s just plain copping out. It’s very hard work to find out what your values are. There’s such an emphasis on individuality in the culture, and yet people are trapped in the collective. What the collective thinks is what most people do.

PP: Many people find safety and security in thinking and doing what others are thinking and doing.

MW: They don’t want to step outside what’s familiar, and be different. And in turn that’s because they don’t know how to go inside and find the real person, or how to connect with their real emotions: Am I angry? Am I sad? Am I capable of love? Do I have any idea in my body what love is? Without that capacity to feel what is going on in the body, how can we really know ourselves?

PP: So, according to what you’ve been saying, the body is the path to how we’re really feeling.  For example, recently I had an ear infection; I’d been extremely busy, and a lot was going on. When I got sick, I read the physical symptom psychologically: I couldn’t “hear” from the outside anymore. I couldn’t take in anything more. So I knew I had to be quiet and go within. Is that an example of what you’re talking about?

MW: Exactly. Too much external stimulation can leave the inside empty. But eventually the body rebels.

PP: So the body can call out to us, and in a sense be a kind of spokesperson for the psyche?

MW: That’s what I think. It’s usually the Feminine through the body that puts up the big warning signals, and that warns us to slow down, open up, stop doing and just be.

PP:  Do you believe that therapy and psychoanalysis is a healing trend in the culture, as well as a new form of ritual?

MW: I do. Because how can someone stop repetitive patterns if they have no idea what’s going on in their unconscious? There’s no other way. You can use will power to try and stop it, but will power, as every alcoholic knows, will break down. Unconscious means “not knowing,” and “not being conscious of.” So there may be huge forces operating in a person that they are totally unaware of. And then they come in a dream—and the person who had the dream wonders, “What on earth does that have to do with anything—that’s totally bizarre!” Or perhaps a person does something strange like hit somebody, and then wonders, “Where did that come from? How could I possibly have done such a thing?”

I understand the criticism that people haven’t got the money to do analysis. But if everybody made some attempt to connect with the unconscious, and if enough people began to have insight into themselves, that could also radically shift the culture: drop a pebble in the pool and the ripples go out.  Because it’s the unconscious that’s so sick in our culture. Most of us literally don’t know what’s going on in there.

PP: So we ignore these unconscious forces at our peril.

MW: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. If a person doesn’t feel secure within, then they have to possess; they have to own; they have to control. But in reality that comes out of an inner sense of impotency.

PP: Turning back to America, as you pointed out at the beginning of our interview, our big inflation is that we see ourselves as the “savior” nation and the “hope of the world.”

MW: Comes out of your Revolution.

PP: But at the same time, it’s part of our history. People from around the world also project on us the idealized image and dream of the “Promised Land”—immigrants for the most part want to come to America.

For example, I was in a hotel the other day having a drink with a friend. Our waitress was a young woman from Ethiopia. Most of her family was still in Ethiopia, although she’d lost many of them, and her mother was bedridden. The three of us got into a conversation about America and at one point she burst out, “You have a wonderful country! God loves your country. Americans have such heart.” I was moved to tears by her words.

MW: There’s huge generosity of spirit [in America]. I agree with that.  What I’m talking about is balance: being able to hold both sides of a polarity in one’s consciousness. Older cultures are capable of seeing two sides to a situation as complementary, and naturally belonging to each other, while younger cultures like America tend to make one side good and the other side bad. In life, however, they belong together, and both an individual and a culture must be able to hold them both, and hold the balance. And if you can do that, then a third dimension arises that unites them.

PP: And in our culture these two sides would be?

MW:  The dream, the hope, and the perfectionist ideals on one side. And on the other side would be despair, lack of faith, and an absence of dreams and desires—imperfection and chaos. The work ethos is also in your [America’s] background. But selfishness and laziness are part of human nature as well.

So on one side you have cosmos and on the other side, you have chaos. And if you push these polarities to their extreme, you have God on one side and the human being on the other: the perfection vs. the imperfection.

PP: And for us God means perfection. God isn’t in the imperfection.

MW: And this is where the Feminine falls, because in the Goddess there is imperfection. You look around and every possible kind of human being is walking around. And does She love them all? Yes. Nature accepts how beautiful everything is. Everything has a right to live.

Pythia Peay is the author of America on the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture and American Icarus: A Memoir of Father and Country (Lantern Books, 2015).