Covid on the couch

The immensely influential Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961) took a deep and abiding interest in astrology. Spanning half a century, his study of the subject informed the development of his groundbreaking theories of archetypes and the collective unconscious. Yet this fact is seldom acknowledged because the symbolic language of astrology – so much more complex than pop culture can convey – is easily missed by the uninitiated. Meanwhile, many of Jung’s followers have downplayed his involvement to protect his cred and/or their own: astrology, to quote cultural historian Richard Tarnas, is the ‘gold standard of superstition’. Yet neglect of astrology doesn’t negate it. And so the work of Jungian thinkers who ignore it can nonetheless yield insights into its nature.

Take archetypes: the psychological forces, or what Jung called primordial images, that humans inherit at birth and which belong to the collective unconscious. It’s useful to understand that archetypes aren’t static things but dynamic functions, and the collective unconscious isn’t a place or a repository, as Jung’s terminology can imply, but an abstract concept of a psychic depth greater than the personal unconscious of repressed memories etc.

In his radical second essay collection, The Devouring Mother: The Collective Unconscious in the Time of Corona (2021), blogger Simon Sheridan puts Covid on the couch. Combining linguistic theory, broad general knowledge and cultural commentary with Jungian ideas, Sheridan applies psychology to politics and, counter to shallow mainstream media analyses, shows how the pandemic only begins to make sense in the context of far-reaching historical developments.

Inspired by Jung’s 1936 essay on Wotan, the archetype he believed had possessed the German psyche under Nazism, Sheridan explores the rise of another archetype, the Devouring Mother:

I had already had the intuition that the corona event was like the wars and… I asked myself the question: what archetype has been driving the corona event? […] An archetype is part form and part energy. It comes together like a constellation and like constellations has a certain inherent subjectivity to it. It is this which most offends the materialistic scientific dogma which predominates in the modern West (p. 2).

Most people think of archetypes as the Hero, the Trickster and so on. Yet they needn’t be personified. Floods, plagues, wars, the Underworld, resurrection and more are also part form and part energy. As the planets orbit our Sun against a background of fixed stars (the zodiac), their changing relationships take the form of conjunctions, oppositions, squares etc., sometimes in complex combinations. And themes specific to each planet manifest as distinctive energies.

Saturn and Pluto – associated with, among other things, contraction/suppression and destruction/regeneration respectively (one classic example of this pairing is totalitarianism) – formed a conjunction at the start of WWI, a square at the start of WWII, and a conjunction in 2020 with the emergence of the pandemic. Mass movements mirror planetary transits, whether or not we note the synchrony. As Richard Tarnas writes in Cosmos and Psyche (2006), a comprehensive study of major planetary cycles spanning millennia:

[The Saturn-Pluto] archetypal complex tended to constellate a widespread sense that one’s life was determined and constrained by large impersonal forces of many kinds – historical, political, military, social, economic, judicial, biological, elemental, instinctual – too powerful and dominant to be affected by the individual self. This sense of vulnerability was in turn regularly matched by a drive for power, control, and domination. Sometimes the two sides of this larger gestalt were constellated simultaneously in two opposing persons or groups, one predatory, the other victimized. Yet just as often the two sides were constellated simultaneously within the same person, group, or nation, each part of the complex unconsciously eliciting the other (p. 210).

‘An archetype’, Sheridan writes, ‘has taken over our lives in the same way that an archetype took over at the beginning of WW1 and continued right on through the Nazi regime until the end of WW2 (p. 5).’ This period spans an entire Saturn-Pluto cycle: from one conjunction to the next, which coincided with the onset of the Cold War. Tarnas closely charts the cycle and corresponding world events through the 20th century and up to 9/11. ‘The Devouring Mother archetype has been dominant in western society for a couple of decades’, Sheridan wrote in 2021, two decades after 9/11, which coincided with a Saturn-Pluto opposition: the point of maximum polarisation in the cycle. Projection onto the other erupted like an epidemic. Suddenly the spotlight focused on border protection, demonising Islam and repelling refugees. Keeping hypothetical terrorists out of Australia became a make-or-break election issue. Recall the Children Overboard affair of October 2001 – opportunistic exploitation of the anti-Muslim sentiment unleashed by 9/11; a prime example of gaslighting and emotional manipulation, traits Sheridan ascribes to the Devouring Mother archetype.

But we can’t lay all the blame in the laps of governments. The Devouring Mother, a co-dependent on steroids, exists for her children: one rebellious, the other acquiescent. And because her collective expression mirrors the personal version, I learned firsthand that her children must either bend or break. Initially, I bent: literally. But eventually, like all hell, I broke loose. More or less acquiescent when small, I began to rebel around twelve – incidentally the age at which my scoliosis was diagnosed. To quote Sheridan: ‘The Devouring Mother aims to inhibit her child from growing up and Munchausen by Proxy is one way to achieve that goal by gaslighting the child into thinking it is sick.’ My mother deemed me ‘different’ for not echoing her values and mourned my defiance of her invasive meddling and prying, so my warped spine legitimised her vigilance. While specialists monitored my structural deviance, my mother monitored me. When, at 17, I came out of hospital, post-op, encased in a thick plaster shell and at first unable to rise unaided from bed, she fed off my helplessness, intercepting phone calls. After five years of fighting for control, she was in her element with my plans to leave home postponed. An acquiescent child – an archetype Sheridan calls ‘the Orphan’ – would welcome or at least accept such treatment. I became more hell-bent on escape. The devourer’s neurotic need doesn’t allow for a happy medium.

And so we find society divided, if not neatly or tidily, into ‘Orphans’ and those struggling for freedom (even if that just means being free to make one’s own mistakes). How did my devouring mother cope when I flew the coop? She turned to her spouse, but then he died and she began to unravel. And without a co-dependent relationship, her collective counterpart, too, can only adapt or collapse. If enough people say No Thanks, she loses her power to devour. No to digital monitoring and censorship of dissent; no to mandated medical meddling; no to trading civil and human rights for convenience. What would it take for that to happen?

As Sheridan writes in his conclusion: ‘We become susceptible to psychic epidemics when we lack the interpretation which links the current stage of society back to the past (p. 88).’ Astrology is one interpretive tool we can use.

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2 Responses to Covid on the couch

  1. …that makes so much sense to me. I am so grateful for the map of astrology and the archetypal energy resonances. There is much in your blog that has put some missing pieces into the understanding of archetypes and specifically the Saturn/Pluto dance.
    It’s interesting that a Patriarchal/capitalist dominant culture has manifested this archetype of the feminine. ie the devouring mother rather than a masculine one. Or is it that this particular constellation has this resonance alongside many others?
    Thanks as always for your generous intelligence and provocative thinking.

    • Thanks for your affirming response, & for raising such an interesting question! Though capitalism emerged relatively recently, the patriarchy dates back to the birth of agriculture 10+ millennia ago, so while capitalism will happily exploit gender inequality, I wouldn’t say it’s defined by that (it’s happy to exploit the struggle for gender equality too ;)). As far as I can tell, psychologist & hugely influential public intellectual Jordan Peterson popularised the idea of the Devouring Mother as a dominant archetype in the West at this time. It’s a fresh perspective for me to explore, as I tend to read major trends through an astrological lens, if partly because my knowledge of astrological archetypes makes them obvious. I don’t know if Peterson has any theories about archetypes now dominant in the East or about their rise & fall & coexistence in recent or distant history. Sheridan has suggested that the Tyrannical Father preceded the Devouring Mother (a shadow version of Odin – ‘Allfather’ – which Jung calls Wotan, & describes as a wanderer, warrior & more; quite complexly). Regardless of the objective validity of the archetype, Sheridan – like Peterson – makes very productive use of it in discussing Western culture today. I can’t see astrology attaining such popularity in any meaningful way: the patterns & cycles it treats are too complex; Tarnas has written a scholarly, seminal & accessible study, but it’s quite a demanding read. Apparently both the Tyrannical Father & the Devouring Mother correspond to the Saturn-Pluto cycle (you could argue for Saturn as father & Pluto as mother; the two rolled into one). As for ascribing gender to collective-scale archetypes, the personification factor makes them more relatable to a broad audience.

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