Mandalas, Nixies, Goddesses and Succubi: a neuroanthropologist Looks at the Anima

Anima as structure and as content

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Anima as structure and as content. There is a natural ambiguity between thinking of the anima as an innate function of the nervous system which, until active in producing imagery in the sensorium, remains essentially content-less. This is similar to saying that until the hand does its thing, there is no grasping. Anima may refer to the underlying structure of communication between the conscious and unconscious mental faculties, and it may refer to the dream and fantasy imagery that expresses activities in the unconscious. This distinction is far from trivial when we place the issue in cross-cultural perspective, for while there is such a phenomenon as a relatively pure archetypal experience, most anima imagery is culturally loaded. I seriously doubt that a black native of Zimbabwe, or a Micronesian from the Marshall Islands would encounter a radiant white blond in a shift during a meditation retreat. More than likely, their positive anima ideal would resemble their own culture’s goddesses. But to say that the content of anima imagery is culturally influenced is not to deny the universal, archetypal basis of the structures within the nervous system that mediate them.

James Hillman’s rejection of this crucial distinction between structure and content has the effect, intended or otherwise, of totally culturally relativizing the concept of the anima/us. Hillman (1985:13) and others (e.g., Griffin 1989:40) have rejected Jung's distinction between the archetypes as unknowable structures in themselves and archetypal images and ideas as knowable transformations (or "contents") of those structures. They do so on the dubious grounds that, if the "archetypes in themselves" are in principle unknowable, then how can we know anything about them? But this is a serious error that further confuses the underlying ontological difficulties with the notion of archetype. Moreover, it is a view that is both over-rationalized, ethnocentric and phenomenologically naive. There really exists no universal structure in Hillman’s account whose transformations allow comparisons and deductions pertaining to its hidden nature.

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