The Third Narrative: Corona and the Collective Psyche
Author: B. Les Lancaster
The way in which the majority on our planet arrive at their understanding of things is dominated by one or other of two master narratives.
The narratives are probably best characterised as the mechanistic and the magical. Applied to the current pandemic they run along the following general lines:
The coronavirus is a pathogen whose existence lies at the boundary between life and non-living, inert matter. It somehow jumped from one kind of species—nonhuman—to another—human. It is a foreign agent that tricks host cells into doing its bidding—to replicate it. The immune system of a human body recognises it as non-self, and attempts to destroy it. Consequences of this battle include the symptoms suffered by those who contract the virus, the most devastating of which is the difficulty in breathing that can eventuate in termination of a life.
At the societal level, our best line of collective defence is self-isolation—that individuals can avoid the contact that enables the virus to invade successive individuals. At best, such isolation can prolong the siege, not defeat the enemy. Ultimate victory can come only with a vaccine, another kind of foreign agent—this time an ally, who can recruit additional soldiers to fight the virus with less devastating collateral damage. The military language is generally appropriate to this mechanistic story.
Economically, self-isolation triggers a domino effect, through which the flow of currency is seriously compromised, but borrowing against the future can maintain a semblance of the dominant economic system. Moreover, isolation may be placed in abeyance by the needs for that which we must consume—supermarkets and banks remain open, where yellow lines enforce the two-metre rule. Distancing is the new social reality, while IT systems give the veneer of closeness.
At the core of magical thinking is the belief that some form of agency permeates all that exists. The agency may be conceived as soul, spirit, or simply an unspecified presence or force. The fact that the agency is universal implies a sympathy, or correspondence, between all things. The agency is imbued with intelligence, implying that there is meaning or purpose in the unfolding of events.
The above key feature of magical thinking applies to most religions—in which the agency is ascribed to a God or a pantheon of gods—and, accordingly, there is no hard-and-fast boundary between magic and religion. Nevertheless, magical thinking may broadly be distinguished from religious thought to the extent that, in the case of magic, humans potentially have direct access to, and can influence, the agency as it operates in the physical world of immediate experience.
Magical thinking asserts that the coronavirus is necessarily an expression of this agency, and is therefore meaningful in the sense that it bears a purpose. Its nonhuman origin implies that the purpose entails our relations with the nonhuman realm, which fits with the idea that humans are disrupting the balance in ecological systems. The impact of the pandemic on the social and economic order becomes understood not simply as a response to the virus along mechanical lines, but as a symbolic expression of the purpose of the pandemic—that humans must change their use of social infrastructure (especially transportation) and that the economic system must be transformed. The sheer numbers of humans on this planet are unsustainable, and the agency has instituted a cull.
Magical thinking often goes hand-in-glove with conspiracy theories, of which there is no shortage in relation to the coronavirus. The reason for this symbiosis concerns the nature of evidence. Scientific research provides the consensual base for the mechanistic narrative. Without the ballast of scientific evidence, the magical narrative is open to diverse and spurious forms of evidence.
The question I wish to address concerns whether we need a third narrative that overcomes limitations associated with these two, and can be supported by evidence that may rightfully be classified as scientific. Many features of the magical narrative applied to the coronavirus identified above fit within our contemporary worldview—the classical divide between humans and animals (traditionally expressed in terms of a qualitative difference in their respective ‘souls’) has largely disappeared; the influence of human culture on our planet (climate, species diversity, etc.) is generally construed by influential figures as being disruptive, and probably a majority adhere to the view that rapid change is essential for our survival in the societal forms we have built; and the injustices of an economic system that sustains exploitation can no longer be evaded.
The features of magical thinking that remain unacceptable to so-called developed cultures are its view of agency and the role of evidence. There are, however, good grounds for challenging the mechanistic view on these two considerations, and the pendulum is swinging against allegiance to the mechanistic approach. At the root of the challenge lie two potent ideas, each related to one of the two features above—agency and evidence. The first idea is that of the collective psyche, which not only embraces the sum of individual minds but also may be viewed as instrumental in the development of our worldview and therefore in the unfolding of events; it is an agent of change. The second idea is that of post-materialist science, an approach that honours the methods of science whilst holding that not all the evidence generated through those methods will have explanations that involve matter. Increasing numbers of researchers are arguing that consciousness, for example, is a phenomenon that cannot be fully understood in relation to the functions of the brain alone, but rather is best conceptualised as a fundamental property of the cosmos. The seemingly more mystical view that matter may be a derivative of consciousness—rather than the other way round—is receiving scholarly attention.
In its modern guise, the idea of a collective psyche is most strongly associated with the work of C. G. Jung, who argued that outpourings of the psyche—dreams, myths, or other creative imaginings—are shaped by collective archetypes. Whilst the outpourings are concrete and known, the archetypes are concealed, “unconscious” in the terminology Jung employed. When major issues begin to change the way we think, the question may be asked: Is the impact best understood in terms of increasing numbers of individuals thinking along the new lines, or should we engage the concept of a collective mind that is greater than the sum of its parts—that significant change is seeded by individuals but, at some tipping point, the collective psyche re-orients, with the consequence that all individuals within that collective are impacted? Issues such as feminism, ecological activism, and human impact on planetary climate, for example, have undoubtedly impacted on the way we think, with many clamouring for further action. Postulating that these issues have taken root in the collective psyche gives further substance to their impact.
The critical question is whether the term ‘collective psyche’ in this context is merely a convenient way of referring to changes in the worldview of a majority in a given population (depending on the population of interest, we may speak, for example, of a national collective psyche, a western collective psyche or even a global collective psyche). The alternative view would hold that the collective psyche is ‘real’, not merely a convenient label, and that it therefore has its own dynamics and impacts in causative ways on individuals from the given population.
How can we demonstrate the ontic status of the collective psyche? This question takes us into the other domain—that of evidence. Of course, it would be absurd to think of science measuring the collective psyche directly. But scientific methods can demonstrate its effects—in areas like synchronicity, near-death experiences, telepathy or other parapsychological phenomena. Crucially, this is no different to our understanding of the individual psyche. Scientific methods can demonstrate its effects but explanations of its existence in terms of matter and material processes have no scientific validity. Scientific data can indicate that the brain plays a crucial role in mediating consciousness and the psyche; but any assertion that the brain is the agent through which consciousness and the psyche are generated is no more than a belief. This is the background against which calls are being made for a post-materialist science, which recognises more precisely where the boundary lies between data and the interpretation of those data through paradigmatic beliefs, than do many scientists currently researching consciousness.
We know of the individual psyche through experience, and believing in its existence brings value to our lives; it has heuristic status. Exactly the same may be claimed for the collective psyche. Many experience being in the presence of something larger than the individual, and many similarly hold that their belief in a collective presence enriches their lives. These two are the core characteristics of the phenomenon now labelled as “spiritual but not religious”, which is growing rapidly in many cultures.
In light of these developments, we may reasonably propose that viewing the coronavirus phenomenon as an expression of a need experienced in the collective psyche is no longer an expression of magical thinking. I use the term “coronavirus phenomenon” since the need is obviously not for a virus—the need is not a death wish! The need is being met by the consequences of the virus. We need humility to realise that the smallest element can wreak havoc in our largest structures. We need to re-balance our grasp of the boundaries between species, between ‘life’ and ‘non-life’, and between ‘self’ and ‘non-self’; If the essence of consciousness is a fundamental property of all things, then the boundaries are permeable at the deepest level. We need to respect ecosystems. We need to control our impact on our environment. We need to question the inequalities that had forced a kind of social distancing even prior to the virus; In the UK, for example, the decision to leave the EU was effectively a product of ‘social distancing’ (between regions and the capital; between older and younger generations; between the empowered and those who feel disempowered). We need to rebalance across the generations; a society in which the young are disadvantaged by comparison with the old is a fundamentally unhealthy society. We need to come to terms with what globalisation really means; I suspect in years to come, we will look back on this period as the watershed when globalisation crossed a threshold (in terms not only of the spread of the virus, but also in terms of how our use of IT systems and artificial intelligence have changed society).
All of these needs are being addressed at the collective level as a consequence of the coronavirus. That it is a shift that brings collective pain is hardly surprising—ask individuals who have experienced genuine transformation, perhaps through therapy, or a “dark night of the soul” spiritual experience. Transitions exact their price. Why would the collective level not mirror the individual in such matters?
And, finally, there is the question of symbolism. Freud re-awakened the ancient notion that the gods speak to us through the language of symbols, transposing it to the realm of communication between the unconscious and the conscious mind. Symbols provide the sap that courses through the levels of mind. Again, as with the individual psyche so too with the collective psyche. By naming this virus “crown” are the depths of the collective psyche conveying an important symbol?
The role of a crown is twofold: It is a symbol of power, and it is a device to ensure that a monarch carries themselves in an upright manner befitting an icon whose role is to inspire respect and emanate a body of values for its people. This, second, function is seen, for example, in the fashion for top hats in an earlier age, or in the mitres and headdresses that diverse cultures have adopted. When wearing a heavy crown one simply cannot be stooped or misaligned to the vertical axis. In regard to the first function, there can be little doubt that humanity wields huge collective power. The critical question lies perhaps with the second function of the crown: How do we carry ourselves? How are we aligned?
Returning to the needs that might bring about a re-balancing of the collective psyche, I suggest that we need to find a new way to relate to the ‘crown’. It is essential that we become more deeply aligned with the vertical axis that connects us both to the earth—reminding us of our embodied interconnectedness with all beings—and the heavens, symbolising the cosmos and universal intelligence. Moreover, we should remember that it is our verticality that holds us aloof from the kingdom from which we evolved. We need to re-connect with that kingdom, we need to find the path that carries dignity through knowing our place within a global, planetary consciousness.
At bottom, taking the perspective of the collective psyche requires a shift in scale, and maybe it is this very shift that is the greatest need of all. It is some fifty years since we saw pictures of the whole earth from space, showing us a global reality for the first time. The Jubilee symbolises the great renewal—in the biblical sense, slaves were freed, land ownership reverted to the original ‘plan’. Perhaps this is the lesson of our time—that we must venture beyond mere images and truly embrace and embody what it means to live in an age defined by inter-connection and participation, that there is an urgent need for us to recognise the gifts, the pains, and the responsibilities.
Professor B. Les Lancaster
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