Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture and Spring Journal Books
<i>American Soul</i>
American Soul
A Cultural Narrative
by Ron Schenk
Introduction to American Soul
by Ronald Schenk
American Soul is about an idea—that all groups, particularly nations, exist as derived from a unique, essential underlying story or myth. Although America identifies itself primarily through the language and story of democracy, egalitarianism, and humanistic concerns which to an extent have been made manifest, historically America's attitudes and actions have been predominantly marked by a different orientation that is difficult to reconcile with these ideals—blind self-interest, a privileging of an elite section of the population, rampant racism, devouring consumerism, the plundering of energy and natural resources, capitalistic exploitation, overwhelming political influencing by moneyed interests, the savaging of education, the dilution of health care relative to cost, the demise of infrastructure, the alienation of the international community, the stripping away of constitutional rights of individuals, and the continuous reversion to military action for the sake of dominance. All of this is acted out in service to a general denial enabled by the manipulation of language so that terms such as "jobs," "progress," "opportunity," "change," "choice," "security," "action," and "freedom" co-opt final authority while playing on the underlying appetites and anxiety of a gullible population.

The question that arises in addressing American character becomes: How can one explain the sheer ubiquity and vastness of the discrepancy between ideal and practice in many different aspects of American life that has occurred throughout its many decades? One response offered by depth psychology is that foundational assumptions and attitudes, predominant guiding images, and basic action patterns of an individual or group all stem from a fundamental narrative or myth as indicator of core character lying latent in the rhizome of the psyche.

The idea that myth connotes a reality runs counter to the mainstream of modern Western thought, beginning with the rationalism of the seventeenth century, which has tended to equate the word "myth" with "fancy," meaning fallacy, delusion, or a mistaken notion, that which opposes what can be proven as fact or truth through rationality. From this view, all certitude must be grounded in analytic reason. As depth psychology has revealed from its inception, an approach based purely on reason does not hold when applied to the complexity of human nature. The founders of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, thought that another form of discourse was called for to explain human behavior and its underpinnings in an intangible world they called the unconscious. They turned to myth as a means of expression for this aspect of psychological life—the Oedipal myth for Freud and universal mythology for Jung. With myth as a primary tool, the psychoanalysis of human nature was first applied to the individual psyche and was then expanded to group psychology, including the analysis of culture and national character. This book furthers the analysis of national psyche in relation to an essential American character or soul.

The book suggests that American myth is predominantly derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially the first five books of the Old Testament and the book of Revelation in the New Testament. It explores the historic and contemporary implications of the following motifs: the chosen people, presumed innocence, the journey, the Promised Land, God's blessings and protection, the privileged elite, travail, ambivalence toward the law, and the role of dominance. It goes into many aspects of American life, particularly those that have been experienced as disaster, in order to find openings to the underlying myth that lies in the details of the images presented.

The beginning chapter, "9/11 and the Twin Towers," is a meditation on 9/11 that attempts to convey the dramatic impact upon the nation's psyche elicited by the event through its imagery. Archetypal amplification of the images suggests the idea of an underlying "life" at work in the psyche of the nation, revealing a deeper meaning than topical discussion would indicate. The chapter begins exploring the roots of this event through an investigation of the object of the attack, the twin towers, with the implication that the Port Authority—the building complex and the agency that conceived and constructed the towers—can be viewed as living out a "personality" reflective of the nation as a whole.

The idea of a deeper meaning to 9/11 is elaborated in the second chapter with an initial foray into the concept that America holds a national character. This idea was first and perhaps most profoundly described by a visiting Frenchman in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville described Americans in terms of self-interest, but a self-interest moderated with an understanding of the need for a window of connection to the world. "[Americans] show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state."1 Tocqueville also foresaw the danger that a democracy such as he found in America might very well lose this "right understanding" of self-interest and close off connection with the world so that the "people" would become a tyrannical body in itself.

The third chapter, "Ronald McDonald: A Mythic Narrative," presents an outline of an underlying mythic image in the form of nine interconnected aspects of American character that find their roots in a Judeo-Christian heritage. Each theme can be found in different aspects of American life from the everyday consciousness of the individual to the more overarching scope of national policy as manifest in the different epochs of the country's history. The purpose of the chapter is to show how different parts of national life, large and small, are founded in a larger-than-life story that repeats itself over and over again in different guises.

Having explored the idea of national character housed in story, the book delves into the country's historical rhetoric to find the foundation of the themes demarcated in the previous chapters. "Nehemius Americanus: Puritan Consciousness and American Soul" describes aspects of the Puritan psyche that would form the core of American Soul—the sense of being chosen by God, the identification with spiritual dominance, the orientation toward willful action in the world in God's name, and the association of money with spirit. It was out of its Puritan beginnings that America became a theocracy founded in capitalistic hierarchy and oriented toward empire.

"From Puritan to Yankee" explains the shift in American identity from an overtly religious identification with Judeo-Christian values through Puritanism to a related identity based upon a civic religion that merged Christianity with capitalism and a technological/industrial orientation. Two Founding Fathers were preeminent in this transformation, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. Franklin's writings epitomized the shift from formal Puritan values to those of everyday work and business, while Hamilton paved the way for government support of big business.

The pull in the American psyche toward dominance and empire as it manifested in the nineteenth century is considered in "Empire Builder." This was the age of manifest destiny when the energy of the nation was funneled through notions of progress, development, and growth in the service of moral superiority. With a keen sense of mission, expansion without boundaries came to be a core aspect of the nation's character.

"The Cowboy Crusader and the Americanization of the World" investigates three American leaders of the twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Ronald Reagan. All of these men embodied the American ideal, articulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, of the superindependent individual operating out of conviction in his own values yet indirectly seemingly working for the good of the community at large. The term "cowboy crusader" would seem to fit this image, as it implies the spiritual entitlement that governs this figure who acts as if divinely chosen. At the same time the characterization of cowboy implies the kind of reckless abandon so centrally embedded in the American psyche.

After establishing a historical base for the image of a national soul, the book turns to events and aspects of American life that can be considered openings into its character. The first of these is an exploration of the catastrophic floods in New Orleans that decimated the city in 2005. Although the depiction of this event by authorities was of a natural disaster, the fact is that the flood occurred due to poor maintenance of the flood control system by governmental agencies which had been warned of the probability of disaster on numerous occasions. Katrina is seen as representative of a culture that is predominantly oriented toward progress while leaving the core infrastructure unattended. The tragic images of destruction from the flood give symbolic form to the fact that a large portion of the national population—the poor, the elderly, the infirm, and racial minorities—are given a secondary priority.

"The Shell Game," dealing with the collapse of the Enron Corporation, is the first of two chapters that look into America's economic life as emanating from an underlying mythic narrative. The demise of Enron is imagined as a mirror event to the fall of the twin towers with similar dynamics occurring in each case having to do with a grandiose and inflated self-image and a need to dominate. In addition, the psychology of Enron reveals a mythic influence on American corporate life other than that of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Greek god of the economy and market, Hermes, helps to clarify the trickster-like quality of American business.

"The Tower of Mirrors" explores the financial meltdown of 2008 as part of a series of financial crises that occur over and over due to the privileging of those in the upper echelon of American finance and the attitude that government regulation hinders progress. These underlying assumptions are linked to a Judeo-Christian mentality wherein the market becomes an entry to the Promised Land, and the invisible self-guiding hand of the market becomes like that of God. This configuration is contrasted with that of a culture which presents itself as "other" to American capitalism, that of Islam, in which the banking practices are also seen as derived from an underlying mythology, in this case Sufism.

The book turns to America's defense and foreign policy as "Captain America and His Zealous Blast" provides an extended example of the mindset at work in American actions, especially in relation to the use of bombing directly or indirectly of civilian populations.

An exploration of American foreign policy follows with a historical march through America's attitudes and involvements in relation to Middle Eastern culture with its predominately Muslim orientation. The picture that emerges is mostly divergent from that presented through America's traditional rhetoric of freedom, democracy, and respect for all peoples. Instead, America's interactions with the Middle East have been marked by an uninformed, dismissive, and self-serving approach derived from biblical tradition that has largely alienated the Middle East.

Having set up the groundwork for an understanding of a hostile view toward America on the part of Islamic militants, the book concludes with a return to its beginning subject, 9/11, with an investigation of terrorism itself, "The Soul of Terror/The Terror of Soul." Terrorism is revealed as an archetypal or universal phenomenon rooted in religious zeal which carries a political message through an act of violence based in performance. In this last chapter we leave a predominantly Judeo-Christian underlying narrative for a deeper universal image depicted in religious ritual and in the figure of the Greek god Dionysus, an approach that brings terrorism closer to home.

American Soul is a book based in psychology, and as the psyche is an indefinable concept in itself, it reflects and is reflected by many different disciplines and aspects of cultural life. The book borrows from many areas of culture—history, accounting, architecture, engineering, political science, literature, economics, theology, and sociology—while claiming expertise in none. It rides the horse of history, for example, to seek out predominant patterns, but does not attempt to account for each facet of the country's history, nor does it attempt to balance all aspects of historical and contemporary cultural life through a theory of cyclical emergence or harmony. Rather, the book aims, through a detailed investigation of the nation's rhetoric to identify predominant historical and cultural patterns that are reflective of an underlying essence. This approach runs afoul of the comfortable position that what makes America unique is its diversity, its identity, a collection of divergent approaches, actions, and attitudes. Instead, the book will take the position that diversity is eventually governed by a common underlying structure. The thesis of the book banks upon religion, but it sees religion—etymologically rooted in the image of "bending back"—within a wide spectrum of larger-than-life forces to which the culture is subject. The sense of religion to which the book refers is that of a civil religion of shared beliefs, images, and ultimate concerns outside of institutional religion and the religious fundamentalism of political extremes.

As a book of psychology, American Soul emphasizes one approach to psychology, the delineation of character based on core tendencies or essences. This approach is akin to two other related approaches to culture in depth psychology. One looks at culture through the lens of pathology and sees aberrant behavior or symptoms split off from the central cultural personality which can be changed or corrected. The book instead takes the position that, given the sheer ubiquity of the subject, the depth and breadth of its manifestations, what is often seen as pathological are actually qualities lying within the core of the nation's personality itself. Likewise, with the exception of sections on architecture, economy, and terrorism, which reference archetypes through Greek gods, the book differs from a view that looks at the various behaviors of culture as emanations of a universal collective conscience—all cultures are inherently alike. Rather, the book takes the position that while any single aspect of American character, such as entitlement and a tendency toward imperialism, is shared by other cultures and nationalities, the entire matrix of tendencies weaves into a single, unique national pattern.

American Soul does not diminish qualities that are distinctly American, such as propensity for ingenuity, innovation, and enterprise, an eye for the practical and pragmatic, a facility for perseverance and resiliency, a highly developed capacity for hard work, a creative artistic genius, an authentic altruistic empathy, and a profound sense of humor. Rather, the focus of the book is on those aspects of American Soul that predominate but are difficult to acknowledge and apprehend. It is an attempt to account for these aspects with an overarching psychological structure, that of myth. The book's mythic view is neither positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic, hopeful or discouraging, a vote of confidence or an indictment calling for change, all of which are inherently ego-centered and therefore somewhat self-serving. Rather it is an attempt, through a mythic orientation around limits and finitude, to identify a national character for what it is, no matter the coloring tone of this perception. Ultimately, the book's intention is to bring psychological insight into the discussion regarding America's alignment with itself and the world in hopes of deepening the discourse.
1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2 (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 122.