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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

Mini-Salon 30: Archetypical Symbols in Rugs and Flatweaves?

by Benjamin Tholen

Before I begin I will have to make clear that I am just a filmmaker and by no means a trained professional in Jungian psychoanalysis. This text will be based on my understanding of the Jungian ideas and the books I read out of personal interest in the topic. Corrections or help from anyone more knowledgeable in the field are therefore most welcome.

I have often been confronted with doubt about how far psychoanalysis in general, and especially Jungian theory, could be considered to be "scientific".  Trying to  answer these questions extend beyond the limits of this salon and of my capability as well.  Instead, I recommend the book, Archetypes, by Willy Obrist (1), in which these problems are discussed in detail.  He claims, in contrast to much popular opinion
1.   that psychoanalysis is indeed an empirical science (but one that observes the "inside" rather than the "outside" world);
2.   that the fundamental premises of psychoanalysis (like the existence of an unconscious) have been proven experimentally and that many ideas of Jungian theory are supported by research in neurosciences.
For now, I am accepting some basic ideas of Jungian theory for this approach.

A large part of the human psyche is unconscious but has a strong influence on conscious thoughts and actions. Opposing Freud, Jung claims that this unconscious does not only contain conflicting ideas and emotions that have been suppressed by the individual, but also contains what he calls the "collective subconscious", a common heritage of mankind, that may be similar to animal instincts.

Archetypes can be described as important structures within this collective unconscious. They relate to crucial situations in life like birth, death, adulhood and so on, and in Jungian theory they are strongly linked to the idea of a mental development that Jung calls individuation (2). Jung uses the term to describe personal  as well as cultural development.   On the individual level, the process starts as the child develops a conscious, and its center called ego. It then constitutes its identity by seeing itself as apart from the world.  Or, as Robert Musil says, everything only exists by its bounderies, by a hostile act against its environment (3).   From this point on the individual feels separate from the world, and will develop and overcome several levels of projections to compensate for this, until finally one may become aware of the "wholeness" again on a conscious level.  During this process, the "self" (the center of the unconscious in Jungian terms) will try to send impulses to the conscious, influencing its development.  Key impulses that appear during this lifetime development can manifest in the conscious as pictures that are called archetypical symbols, and appear in dreams, rituals, mythology and art forms.

The concept of archetypes was used in Joseph Campbell's research on mythology based on Jungian ideas. Comparing a vast body of religious texts, mythology and folk tales, Campell comes to the conclusion that most mythological tales can be reduced to something like a "monomyth" that bears great similarities to the Jungian idea of individuation (4).  Archetypes in this context are, for example:
1.  The self, the center of the unconscious, being the source of images and ideas of god;
2.  the hero, the individual that must transform itself during the journey (initially unwilling to do so);
3.  the monster, the negative aspect of the ego which must be overcome (like the cyclops, who only has one eye and is thus unable to see "whole");
4.  anima/animus, the female part in the male and vice versa, which we must integrate in order to become whole (the princess who must be rescued);
5.  the shadow, our "negative" elements that we deny but must acknowledge/become aware of (in which case it can be helpful), and
6.  the element of death and rebirth (the hero must be defeated and rise up again).

Of course, the idea of archetypes in narratives cannot simply be applied to our subject.  During my research I found very little information that could be directly useful.  Some examples are that a circle is seen as a symbol for the self, while the square or the cross, and the number four to which they relate, are supposed to be manifestations of the self in the material world.  The triangle facing down or up is sometimes decribed as male or female, and also concepts of duality in a yin/yang kind of symbolism.

Jung himself issued a general warning, that anything like a catalogue of dream symbols in the field of dream analysis that could be used like a dictonary for interpreting dreams is doomed to produce only misunderstanding.  This is because archetypes manifest themselves differently in individuals, depending on the experiences of the dreamer. 

While dreams use the pictures available in the mind of the dreamer, pre-indvidualistic art, like the textiles with which we deal, may express archetypical ideas in ways that are specific to their actual media, the local tradition and the process of their creation.  I suppose that during the development of a myth, for example, reports on things that actually happened are used and (unconsciously?) rearranged according to their archetypical meaning, while the technical limits of, say, weaving a kilim, will make certain expressions more probable than others.  Even if we do not follow the idea of archetypes and a process of individuation in every detail, I will make a few assumptions, based on my understanding of the Jungian ideas.
1.  The creation of an artwork usually involves communication between the unconscious and the conscious. While no artwork is entirely spontaneous or emotional - even if the rational element consists only of presenting something random as art or the restricted shape of a canvas - strongly reducing the possibility of  unconscious influence on the work by eleminating spontaneity, creative freedom and failure (5) may reduce the quality of an artwork.  This can be seen in certain weavings produced under factory-like settings.  Also, a pattern or motif that is too perfect and regular may be understood too easily. Normally the mind of the viewer is trying to "make sense" of the information that the eyes perceive, compensating irregularities or filling gaps.  During this mostly unconscious process it brings in indvidual asociations, thereby creating a picture in our mind to which we relate. If a pattern is too easily understood, this process is minimized, resulting in a less intense viewing experience: it says nothing to us.
2.  As Campbell claims, the appearence of similar narrative images and structures in mythological tales from all over the world and different times suggests that these tales have not been spread in a continous stream of verbal communication, but that similar ideas appeared again and again because they root in archetypical structures within the collective subconscious.  If this true for narratives, I suggest that the same is true for at least some of the motives in rugs.   Is it  possible that similar motives appear in rugs from different sources because they are expressions of archetypical ideas specific to the media and the circumstances of living that their individual creators had in common, not because they were copied?
3.  Jung makes a distinction  between symbol and sign that is crucial to our topic. While the meaning of a motif as a sign is consciously assigned to it, its symbolic meaning derives from the unconscious and its "creator" does not need to be consciously aware of it.  In his research on African tribes and their rituals, Jung claims that these ritual actions came to existence by "doing first", not as conscious physical expressions of  intellectual ideas, but because of unconscious drives to perform the actions. Jung reports that tribespersons questioned about the meaning of their rituals were sometimes unable to answer, not because they forgot the meaning, but because they never explained the meanings to themselves verbally and felt no need to so.

Regarding our topic, this seems to fit with the description that several authors give about their attempts to question weavers on the meaning of the motifs used in their work and suggests that the symbolic meaning does not necessarily flow from the weavers' conscious knowledge of this content. In fact, questioning the weaver can only reveal the meaning a motif has as a sign at a specific time, which may not even be similar to its symbolic meaning.

Trying to discover the symbolic meaning of a certain motif or its impact on different recipients might require methods similar to those used in psychoanalytic work when trying to make the individual aware of suppressed emotions and ideas that cause a neurotic behavior.  I have to admit that my knowledge of the field ultimately is much too limited to provide suitable ideas for any kind of experimental research. I hope others, more knowledgable in the field, will help out.

Finally, I would like to try the following, using the pictures below as an example: Anyone interested should write down at least 12 associations he has about this piece as a whole (the left picture) and any of the motives in the detail picture. Also, note the order in which these ascociations appeared and try to go  beyond the point where there seem to be no more.  Ideas about a possible purpose of this weaving (prayer, funeral, wedding gift, purely commercial, etc.) should also be noted.

Whole rug       Detail

Any ideas to enhance the effectiveness of this experiment are welcome, of course.  This is by no means a serious psychoanalytical approach, but I hope it can be fun nevertheless. .

1.  Willy Obrist, Archetypen.  Walter Verlag AG, Olten 1990
2.  For example: CG Jung and others, Man and His Symbols, Aldus Books Limited, London 1964
3.  Robert Musil, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften
4.  Joseph Campell, Der Heros in tausend Gestalten
5.  Failure is a very important expression of subconcious impulses, as expressed in the well known Freudian idea of Fehlleistungen
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