Ego Readings vs. Reading for Psyche


  • Inez Martinez University of Wisconsin-Madison



Jung claims that visionary imaginative literature, because its source is the collective unconscious, helps the collective psyche self-regulate. Proving Jung’s claim is difficult since shifts in collective consciousness have many causes, but an instance of literature’s playing a part in such a shift is Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book which contributed to collective realization of the inherent limitations of point of view. Sometimes literature contributes to collective consciousness through tales bringing into focus a collective crisis, such as Jorge Luis Borges’s stories “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Library of Babel,” and “The Secret Miracle” which convey the modern dilemma of loss of absolute transcendent truths. Literature, however, cannot bring unconscious contents to consciousness if readers read with rigid ego boundaries, what I call ego readings.  Slipping free from ego readings is more likely if one becomes aware that one is so reading. If readers already have experience of psyche beyond ego, they are more likely to be able to read for psyche. Still, even if readers do not have such experience, literature itself can initiate one into the existence of psyche as my reading of Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger initiated me. One can become aware of performing ego readings through clues such as habitually discovering in the text what one already thinks, reading for plot, becoming angry at a text, discovering that one has been in denial about a text, and reading to find support for an argument. This latter practice characterizes literary criticism, as illustrated by Jacques Lacan’s, Jacques Derrida’s, and Barbara Johnson’s responses to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” Paradoxically, the professional response to literature may obstruct reading literature for psyche. If one can overcome ego resistance to a text, as I suggest through my experience of reading D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking Horse Winner,” one can garner a story’s psychological riches. Still, resistance may arise from ethical concerns, including responsibility to oneself, so that the relationship between self and text requires conscious and conscientious negotiation, an unsettling process as I detail in reference to my reading of Roberto Bolano’s 2666. Once readers are aware of performing ego readings, they can attempt to loosen their ego boundaries through focused attention (an insight emerging from reading Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens”), particularly toward numinous moments for characters in a text or numinous responses in themselves. Reading for psyche also is furthered  through re-reading, conscious intention, and reflection. For the institutions of literary criticism and of teaching to help readers be open to the contents of the unconscious psyche in literature, teachers and critics need to be aware of the difference between ego readings and reading for psyche. Jungian literature teachers and literary critics can take the lead.