The Raven

The Raven

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Jungian Interpretation of "The Emperor Jones"

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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston
Vol. IV, Nos. 1-2
May-September, 1980

While few of Eugene O'Neill's plays are staged as effectively as The Emperor Jones, none, however, receive interpretation as tentative and as indecisive. Travis Bogard's comment--that "What the action of Brutus Jones means, set apart from its stereotypical embellishments, is not entirely obvious"1-- is representative of the dilemma that the play presents to critical judgment. One may account for the dilemma by recognizing that O'Neill seldom exploited stage business so fully, allowing it such primary importance in carrying the play's meaning. Perhaps because this drama's meaning is lodged so completely within the stage setting and stage sounds, interpretations of it appear to be incomplete.
Engel maintains that "The Emperor Jones ... is a simple representation of psychological naturalism for its own sake, ingeniously contrived to a point where one must recognize the performance as a tour de force."2 John Henry Raleigh's excellent work hardly even treats the play, giving most of its attention to the misfortunes of Charles S. Gilpin, the creator of the role of Brutus Jones. Carpenter acknowledges Jung's Collective Unconscious as a paradigm for the play's action, but he avoids that perspective when he holds that Jones's chief error is his denial of Romantic Idealism as an operating base for human conduct.3 Falk, on the other hand, stresses Jung's Collective Unconscious as a perspective within which to approach the play, but, while seeing more than mere naturalism at work, confuses the meaning of the crocodile by confining it to being an incarnation of Jones's evil, emerging as an avenging God.4
There are several matters missing from this approach. For one, the crocodile is not viewed, in Falk's analysis, with reference to the tribe itself, nor is it readily understood as an incarnation of the tribe's evil made over in the form of an avenging God. Further, what is really lacking is a justification of the tribe's ancestral past being meaningful to Jones's experience as an individual at his own (much later) point in time. The struggle, as well as the fate, of the tribe is not seen as being continued and paralleled in the struggle of Jones. Primarily, the Crocodile God is not seen as that object of ideal belonging brought to sinister dimensions by superstitious, primitive religious ritual.
Common to most criticism is the failure to examine the palpable fear generated within Jones in the light of a more extensive application of Jung's Collective Unconscious. No one discounts the issue of fear in the play; in fact, fear, all too intensely present, actually determines the nature of stage setting and sound. Yet an understanding of the genesis of this fright might increase if one persisted in an analysis that allowed its perspective to be set for it by The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Most accounts do not utilize Jung's views to explain the nature of fear in both the personal and racial pasts of Jones. Little effort has been made to show Jones's quest as only a slight permutation of the ancestral tribe's quest--both being paradigms of the quests of all men. Yet the collective unconscious does supply a framework that allows the two different pasts to be interpreted in the light of a common referent. Certainly, it allows fear to be seen more clearly as deriving from one, single root condition.
In brief, Jung's observations stress the existence of a collective unconscious, an instinctual life below the ready access of consciousness, which all men share in common. Instincts of a sublunary nature might be the communally-shared fear of night, or the need for both a feminine and masculine influence in one's life in order to attain psychic wholeness. Instincts of a spiritual nature, however, come closer to O'Neill's purposes: such instincts as the need for a parentage of divine proportions, such as that embodied in the divine syzygies, or the need for a spiritual as well as a physical birth, or the need for a God.
These unconscious instincts, present in all men, seek successful expression at the conscious level. When allowed to find a continuous path up from unconscious life into conscious expression, the collective unconscious successfully releases an instinctual energy which becomes a source of exhilaration, strength, and personal unity--all properties of the Romantic unity of being after which an early O'Neill protagonist chased. Since it is constituted of energy, the instinctual life, once emerging complete and fulfilled, affords that inner harmony that allows for non-selfconsciousness, another important property of O'Neill's Romantic ideal. Naturally, the archetypal instincts, satisfied, do not provide the material for drama; certainly not for O'Neill's tragedies, centered as they are in struggle and quest. Thus, the successful expression of the archetypal instincts, for dramatic purposes, has to be aborted in order to set the terms for an O'Neillian tragic struggle.
With the Death of God, Jung affirms the disconnection of the archetypal instincts from their easy expression in conscious life. The ready outlets that religion supplied for the release of the collective unconscious instincts are no longer available. Jung's principal point--at least for consideration of The Emperor Jones--is the observation that the instinctual energies, robbed of ready release, do not dry up and dissipate; instead, they continue to exist in a repressed state and are forced to turn inward upon man, producing subsequent sieges of anxiety, fear, and projection. In Jung's words, "The archetype behind a religious idea has, like every instinct, its specific energy, which it does not lose even if the conscious mind ignores it."5 The often quoted letter of O'Neill's to George Jean Nathan reveals his sensitivity to Jung's stress on the survival of such instincts independent of a denied religious life. "The playwright today must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it--the death of the Old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in."6
The Emperor Jones is about both the black man's and the white man's attempts to satisfy the surviving religious instinct. The black man fails to satisfy his need to quell fear due to the religious ritual being superstitious in nature. And the white man, despite the fact that his conscious mind ignores the archetypal need for God, still tries, and fails, to conquer the fear of spiritual displacement because the modern surrogate for God, Money, is equally superstitious in nature.
The Emperor Jones, therefore, is really O'Neill's demonstration of how the black race has failed to achieve a continuity between unconscious, archetypal instincts and the conscious expression of those instincts. The terror of not belonging to self and of not belonging in a unity with all being borders on the either/or terrors of Puritan election. For this reason, the black man is an inheritor of fear, of a terror that is ongoing from his racial past even into his American present. But the fear urges, in fact demands, that he make his attempts at belonging. Unfortunately for Jones, his attempts to satisfy the archetypal instincts must be conducted in a modern setting whose only equivalent for the black man's Crocodile God is now Money. Even as the tribe sought to become one with the ultimate power that sinewed the universe, so Jones attempts to anneal himself to that single power that makes all life move the way it does. Money, in the modern setting, is the ultimate power that sinews the earth; its possession makes one master of life and, therefore, master over fear.
While it may be reversing the order of the play, it is probably easier to reveal its Jungian parallels by dealing with the earliest point in historical time, Scene Seven, the racial scapegoat sacrifice. The sacrifice exists as a ritual intended by the primitive blacks to fulfill primitive religious aspirations. So that the will of that power which pervades existence be made to cohere with the tribe's will for itself, the human sacrifice is offered to a specific agent who either symbolizes or possesses divine power. Jones is offered to the crocodile so that the tribe may be reconciled with a spiritual father and a God. Typical of a ritual offering, the wished-for result is to harmonize the deity's will with man's will so that the divine power now accords with human needs. Divine power, then, is to inhere within the tribe and its individual members. To exist within power and yet have that power operate as pure benefice is the ritual's aim. This, in effect, is the tribe expressing its archetypal instinct to belong. Succeeding in this, the tribe would possess its own soul by identifying its aims and intentions with a transcendent object. An imperturbable spiritual power existing as a dimension of its inner life would make for the tribe's controlling experience.
At this point, O'Neill's accent on superstition can be seen in its full importance. Superstition pervades the play. It opens with Jones's position, established by superstition, being threatened by the tribe's superstition. The whole movement of the play is within the framing device of one superstition replacing another, whether it be Lem's replacing Jones's or the white man's replacing the black man's. In his ancient, tribal superstition, the black man does not secure a belonging whereby he would be master of his own psychic and spiritual state. The tribe's superstition subordinates man to nature, and, rather than achieving the ideal independence of soul so necessary to O'Neill's characters, the black man becomes dependent upon the vagaries of nature. Weather changes, crop failures, the death of offspring: these force a reconsideration of the tribe's successfully belonging to God, to the cosmos, and to itself. The continuum between unconscious instincts and conscious expression of those instincts, though satisfied by the tribe's ritual, is resolved erratically. Fear is never eliminated.
At this point in historical time, the black race is absorbed into white civilization, which has its own formula to appease the archetypal instincts. The aggressive materialism reflected in slave trading gives witness to the type of power the white man seeks in order to quell fear. Thus the black man, his archetypal instincts still alive in the modern setting, is made subject, in that setting, to others who believe they have the answers to belonging. The black man's Behind Life force, aggravated and internalized, becomes enamoured of a substitute deity offering a newer version of connection between the unconscious instincts and their conscious evocation. To his physical slavery is added the slavery to the proposition that the basic issues of life are settled by a materialist solution. The belief that they can possess their own souls through the possession of things outside of it is, for O'Neill, the white men's answer to the problem of belonging. The black man, in his spiritually weakened state, is made the victim of those who, under the illusion of satisfying their instinctual life, seek physical power and depend on it to sustain their illusion.
Jones sees the white world as pursuing an aim common to the black race--a participation in power and a harmony with the laws of the universe--that the white man seeks in his materialist belonging. But an essential distinction lies in the fact that, while the black man sought an internal power, a spiritual power, the white man understands his power in a purely material, external, physical sense. For the whites, then, worldly goods and their benefits become the surrogate objects of belonging through which spiritual satiety is, presumably, made possible.
Of course, Jung's position denies that these objects will ever serve satisfactorily as substitutes for the real religious objects that harmonize unconscious life with conscious life. Wealth can only be an illusory solution to satisfying the archetypal instincts. But for a time, perhaps for two hundred years or more, the capitalist appeal mesmerizes with its power and its prospect of self-sufficency. This explains the setting bathed in white and in light in the opening scene. As Michael Hinden notes, "The entire setting is a projected wish fulfillment of Jones's power craving self."7 Coupled with Jones's resplendent, regal attire, summoning the images of power, are the whiteness and light that illustrate the presumed clarity of purpose and the personal destiny possessed by Jones in his dedication to the white materialist ideal. The subsequent forest gloom, however, announces the tentative and illusory nature of this new, materialist resolution of the unconscious life-conscious life continuum. Jones's fulfillment of the archetypal instincts is as illusory as the ancient tribe's failed attempt.
Immediately Jones's material mastery of life is challenged: the formless fears emerge. And his fears intensify as his sense of spiritual direction, founded on a false God, diminishes. As the accouterments of power are stripped away, Jones's near-naked self is vivid testimonial to the need to belong to something within self rather than to something external to self. Jones moves from the light of "salvation" to the terror and darkness of "damnation." Having no satisfying state of spiritual belonging surviving from his roots in his ancestral past, Jones has pursued an equally bankrupt belonging by imitating the white man's erroneous solution to the unconscious archetypal instincts' expression. That fear is so quickly and so completely precipitated in Jones is a full representation of the Jungian picture of fear when man's unconscious instincts are internalized and given no conscious objectification.
This not-belonging-to-self, made inevitable by not belonging to the appropriate external, eternal object, is what the fear motif of The Emperor Jones is all about. With no true source of spirituality from his past to satisfy belonging, and with nothing to satisfy spiritual needs in his present but an impotent materialism, Jones is a representative of many black men--disenfranchised from purposeful life throughout their histories. The power that true belonging to a divinity predicates becomes, in terms of the white man's materialist belonging, a naked, raw, unmediated physical power symbolized by slave ships, slave sales, chain gangs, and weapons--all vestiges of criminal purpose.
Obviously, power, in the white man's sense, does not derive' from any internal state of being. Exterior condition is the exclusive preoccupation of white civilization. Since the white world disallows any alternative deity to Money, Jones has no choice but to accept the general precepts of white civilization and to define in his own person their failed content. Even in his flight, he fails to rely on inner strength to cope with fear, and, in exhausting white civilization's trusted forms of power, represented by the gun and the bullets, he prompts the magnification of fear in himself, a fear finally uncontrollable due to the now-absolute disconnection of unconscious instincts from satisfying implementation at the conscious level. In this absolute failure, Jones is merely describing the absolute failure of any surrogate God to supply secular resolution to the archetypal instincts of the collective unconscious.
In the play's entirety, O'Neill does not represent any time when such successful concord was extant. He closes the play still asserting that the black man's struggle, generally, has been far more close to the truth of the human condition than the white man's struggle has been. Even if superstitious, the black race's quest, at least, seeks to identify with a transcendent power. Lem's superstition renders Smithers' perception pale.
--Patrick J. Nolan
1 Travis Bogard, Contour in Time (N.Y.: Oxford U. Press, 1972), p. 140.
2 Edwin A. Engel, The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O'Neill (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. Press, 1953), p. 49.
3 Frederic I. Carpenter, Eugene O'Neill (N.Y.: Twayne, 1964), p. 94.
4 Doris Falk, Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers U. Press, 1958), p. 69.
5 C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 2nd ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton U. Press, 1968), p. 63.
6 George Jean Nathan, quoted by Joseph Wood Krutch in the "Introduction" to Eugene O'Neill's Nine Plays (N.Y.: Modern Library, 1941), p. xvii.
7 Michael Hinden, "The Emperor Jones: O'Neill, Neitzsche, and the American Past," The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter (Jan., 1980), p. 4.

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