Participation Mystique is a psychological and spiritual idea proposed by the anthropologist Lucien Lévi-Bruhl. It concerns the alleged mystical relationship that so-called primitives had with objects in their environment.
In Lévi-Bruhl’s own words:
In the collective representations of primitive mentality objects can be…something other than themselves…they give forth and they receive mystic powers, virtues, qualities, influences which make themselves felt outside, without ceasing to remain where they are.¹
The depth psychiatrist Carl Jung used the term participation mystique to denote two arguably related ideas.
First, Jung describes cases where his clients believe they have some kind of mystical connection with another person. This may involve a love affair, real or imagined or, more disturbingly, a kind of paranoid, fear relationship.
Over the years Jung modifies his thinking on this. Early on, he seems to say that participation mystique mostly involves a distorted understanding of the collective unconscious. That is, one mistakenly assumes a two-way mystical connection and that the other feels what they feel.
But later in his career Jung seems to open up to the notion that real, two-way relationships can occur through the matrix of the collective unconscious. These may be mutually conscious, conscious on the part of one person, or mutually unconscious.
Second, Jung talks about participation mystique in terms of the numinous power of the archetypes spilling over into ego consciousness. This doesn’t necessarily involve a relationship with another person, per se. The power of the archetypes can be experienced internally like the power of, as Jung suggests, the old gods. As such, they can be helpful or harmful, depending on how the ego relates to this power.
Lévi-Bruhl and Jung’s theories suggest that so-called primitives had an intimate relation with spiritual powers, good and bad.
For Jung, the ego is a high point of modern civilization. But the ego can also obscure the process of participation mystique. The psychological development of the ego gives mankind planes, trains and automobiles but robs us of an inner psycho-wealth apparently enjoyed by our ancestors.
This scenario has been questioned by Michel Foucault and others who say it is a romantic reconstruction of the past based on little or no fact. Foucault studies different understandings – in postmodern terms, constructions – of the self throughout Western history. He touches on themes like dream analysis and the sacrament of confession. But it seems he never really experiences the numinous in a mature way. Like many intelligent but overtly conceptual thinkers, his only understanding of spirituality comes from experimenting with mind-altering drugs.
The American mythographer Joseph Campbell builds on Jung’s work, suggesting that moderns can enjoy a sense of the numinous and feel spiritually connected to all of creation through archetypal films like Star Wars.²
Campbell implies that, contrary to what some might say, Europeans do not have a monopoly on deep culture. Culture is alive and well in North America—not so much through majestic old buildings and the classical arts but through the staggering achievements of Hollywood, the media, technology, and a higher standard of living. However, Campbell also appreciates the great cultural riches of European and most other civilizations.³
Participation mystique is a pivotal idea because it links the individual to something greater than secular materialism. It opens the door to inner exploration and social dialog, both important and best kept in balance. Inner exploration without sincere dialog could lead to madness or charismatic authoritarianism. And social dialog without inner exploration might contribute to the same old worldly ideas being tossed around without any real insight, inspiration or meaningful innovation.
¹ Lucien Lévi-Bruhl, How Natives Think, trans. Lilian A. Clare, New York: Washington Square Press, 1966 , p. 61.
² The Romanian scholar, Mircea Eliade, says much the same thing in his own critique of modern culture. In Myth and Reality Eliade claims that mid-20th century comics like Superman “present the modern version of mythological or folklore Heroes” (New York: Harper & Row 1963, pp. 184-185).
³ These observations refer to about 1949-1987, when Campbell’s influence was at its peak. Everything has changed since then. I once knew a professor who came to Canada from a European country while it was under the grip of communism. Unlike Campbell, this professor implied that European culture was vastly superior to North American culture, the unanswered question being: If the professor likes the old country so much, why is he still in North America?
Why I Crave a Life of Disorder. (elephantjournal.com)
Macbeth Buxton International Festival, review (telegraph.co.uk)