The American Unconscious in Literature and Life

The great student of Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, created, in contrast to his teacher, the theory of the collective unconscious, which is the hidden soul of peoples. According to Jung, this unconscious arises from the historical traumas experienced by the community, which then somehow form the “psychic underground” of the nation.

Americans as a people have been around long enough to develop their own collective unconscious—over 230 years! Not China, of course, but enough already… The question is different: on the basis of what was formed this “secret psyche” of the ethnos, which some researchers (Lev Gumilyov, among others) consider “chimerical”, i.e., failed as an organic whole?

As for “injuries”, there were enough of them in this two-hundred-year history. The war for independence at the end of the 18th century, the civil war and the abolition of slavery in 1861-1865, the war with Mexico and the capture of Texas, the genocide of the Indian population of the continent and the epic of the “Wild West” … Official historiography adds to this, of course, two more world wars in which US expeditionary forces took part on foreign territory. Everywhere in America, next to the monuments to the heroes of the Civil War (by the way, on both sides), there are monuments to participants in overseas campaigns. We will also add Korea and Vietnam to this list – not so glorious and glamorous sorties of the American army, which, nevertheless, left serious notches in the folk soul.

In the question of what this very soul is secretly and wordlessly experiencing, officialdom can help a lot: the authorities declare some slogans in which they try to mint out the national myth, while in one way or another reacting to the real “I” of the nation. In other words, the official myth is called upon to neutralize the collective unconscious, which, according to Jung, is traumatic and, therefore, ultimately destructive.

There is no need to look far for slogans: almost every president formulates the same concept in almost the same way. For Reagan and Bush Jr., this is a “shining city on a hill”, a new Atlantis that has emerged, cleansed of filth, from the ocean depths so that all the “working and oppressed” gather in its open spaces and find … the American dream – a house, a Barbie wife, reliable wealth earned by the sweat of brow! And everything that is outside this brightly illuminated circle is a night full of evil whispers, unknown dangers, which are not worth knowing about, but which must be destroyed…

From this presidential myth that elite America is trying to sell to its population and the rest of the world, it is easy to extrapolate to the state of mind that this myth is designed to neutralize. This is obviously a complex of guilt and fear of the unknown, which is realized both as a threatening challenge to own security and as a victim of own crime.

The great literature of America is about this. About whispers in the night, about night voices in your own brain, about skeletons immured in the cellar… In short, about own “dark half”!

This guilt complex has been developing for a long time. In the 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe became its most prominent spokesman. Most of the masterpieces of psychological horror written by him are built around the syndrome of a criminal soul, which tries to forget about its crime, but at the same time, being decomposing by the forces of Hell, gradually goes crazy, and, ultimately, the secret becomes clear. This syndrome can be designate by the title of one of Poe’s stories “The Tell-Tale Heart” (it is interesting that the anamnesis developed by Poe of a sick soul that drowns out the voice of conscience through unconsciousness was almost completely reproduced by the founder of Scientology Hubbard in the wonderful psychological thriller “Fear”). Edgar Poe, as an elite writer, still alien to the technologies of mass culture, deals with individual crime. Not many people noticed that the problematics he discovered in a compressed form precedes the detailed interpretation of the topic that Dostoevsky gave in Crime and Punishment – of course, in a completely Russian way. But nevertheless, the American psyche also has its own “small piece of Dostoevsky “..

For writers of the 20th century, guilt predictably becomes collective. Stephen King’s chosen theme is a symbolic town in New England, the entire population of which is involved in a conspiracy of silence about the terrible events that took place in the past of this town. This is either a series of massacres against random, alien or passer-by people, as in the novel «It», or the brutal murder of a black woman along with her children, as in the «Bag of Bones». In both cases, the hidden traces of atrocity – around which a closed commune is formed, immersed in a collective psychosis, and not allowing strangers to its past – give rise to some kind of alienated evil that acts in the town as an independent force, continuing to kill and poison new generations. It is easy to see in this the development of the theme of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Black Cat” by Poe, during which the somewhat mystified fate of such towns turns into a paraphrase of the entire American history.

Even more specifically, the symbolism of the criminal essence of the collective unconscious is manifested in King’s “Pet Cemetery”. The heroes of the novel – the family of Louis Creed – acquire the “American dream”: a house, the location of which corresponds to “all astrological signs”. Everything in it is wonderful, but there is one detail – the house stands by the highway, along which long-range trailers rush day and night. The Road is another American myth, fundamentally alternative to the myth of the House, it is associated with the epic of the great journey to the West. These two dreams – the House and the Road – come into irreconcilable conflict. The road inexorably destroys the enclosed comfortable little world of Louis Creed: it kills. Under the wheels of trailers, the cat, the family’s favorite, dies first, and after a while, Louis’s little son, Gage. (By the way, the symbolism of the plot is exacerbated by “speaking names”, the surname of the family is synonymous with “faith, beliefs”, and the name of the only male child is “pledge”).

On the other side of the highway (in another dimension!) lives Creed’s friend, the lonely old widower Jud. It is he who advises Louis to bury the cat first, and then the son in the old Indian cemetery in the thicket of the forest. This is where another psychic scare force that dominates in the nocturnal «I» of the Americans comes into force: the revenants. “Sometimes they come back”: first a cat, and then a child, return from the Indian cemetery in the form of the living dead, who turn the remaining family into their own kind.

The image of the living dead who have filled the world dominates both American literature and Hollywood productions. A frequent plot move is the preservation of just one or a few “normal” people among the sea of ​​walking corpses. In fact, it reads like an allegorical sentence on the condition of modern Americans. In “The Fate of Salem”, a relatively early work by S. King, vampirism, like a contagious disease, affects the entire population of the city (America). Even the positive characters with whom the reader has become related also go through the catastrophe of infection and rebirth into the “living dead”. Neither garlic (a symbol of folk-pagan elemental morality), nor a Christian crucifix saves from the evil of vampirism! Behind all this horror is the monstrous power of an ancient vampire imported to the New World from Europe. The allusion is understandable: the sins of the old society turn into a hellish catastrophe after being implanted into a new community deprived of immunity.

Stephen King, who took on the titanic task of arranging the entire content of the American unconscious in the form of a super-epic, comes to the final vision of the “American universe” as a great tower supporting all living things, which, however, is under threat from the “Crimson King”. The followers of this sinister monster work day and night to cut the ropes that hold this tower – the axis of the worlds – in a vertical position. When it collapses, it will drag all living things with it into the abyss. The forge of the Scarlet King, in which the buttresses are cut, is the American state itself, whose envoys, “low men in yellow cloaks” who look too much like the FBI, are hunting down dissidents throughout the country.

King also gives a formula for the interaction of the state and society in the novel “Needful Things”: the demon-tempter, who appears in every town and every community, offers everyone in it to realize his most secret dream in exchange for a soul. Just like Baudrillard’s famous essay about America, it is a country of embodied hyperutopia, which allegedly sells the world the opportunity to allegedly satisfy all cherished and innermost dreams. But, like Baudrillard, the realization of this utopia is just a substitute, which turns into an apocalypse on the scale (so far) of a single town.

From the confrontation and compromise of the official myth and the people’s unconscious, as a rule, a “national idea” is born. (The compromise of these two principles should be kept in mind by those who compose the national idea in Russia: first it would be good to deal with the collective unconscious, which in our country can also bring many surprises!) Stephen King gives a brilliant formula for this national idea, which at first the gaze reconciles the dualism of official Good and Evil with the muttering, troubled conscience of the silent majority. This formula is in the very first sentence of The Dark Tower: “The man in black fled through the desert, and the gunslinger pursued him.” Here, the very heroic soul of an honest and courageous nation, symbolized by Roland Deschain (Clint Eastwood?), is chasing a nameless black evil that lives in its element – a desert, a territory beyond civilization. The wording that is the paradigm of America’s collision with the outside world. The man in black fleeing across the desert is, of course, Saddam Hussein (or Bin Laden), followed inexorably by US Marines or CIA agents. It would seem so… But only King does not change his deep distrust (and maybe hatred) to the American establishment and the “apparatus of violence and oppression” it created. The eternal persecution of the man in black is the pursuit of his own sin, the never-ceasing horror of self-flagellation. And when Roland shoots the man in black with both revolvers, the sorcerer just laughs: “When you shoot me, you shoot yourself, that’s why you will never kill me.”