Anima: What Does it Mean Today?

Given the importance that I have put on Carl Jung’s concept of the anima in my recent writings, I thought it would be useful to take a step back and figure out exactly what Jung meant when he described it. The source material I will be analyzing is his essay “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious” which dates all the way back to 1916, with numerous revisions made throughout Jung’s life.

I have read quite a bit of secondary source material on the anima recently and also listened to a “This Jungian Life” podcast on the subject. I’m a huge fan of that podcast series, but this episode in particular spent most of its time detailing why Jung’s concept of the animus (the male soul that is housed within every woman) is a dated, sexist mess (and it is.) That’s useful to a degree, but I wish they would go back and pick apart the anima side of the equation. Have social changes over the past 100 years rendered it useless as well?

I don’t think so, but just like non-English novels need to be re-translated into the vernacular of the age when they are read, so too intellectualized concepts like the anima need to be updated to life as it is lived now. I’ll begin my examination with what Jung thinks about the concept of persona, because he states clearly that you cannot fully understand the anima without first getting a grasp of persona.

(I cannot use the word persona, by the way, without adding a link to what I think is the greatest movie ever made.)

Here’s how Jung describes it:

The persona is a complicated system of relations between the individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other hand, to conceal the true nature of the individual …. Society expects, and indeed must expect, every individual to play the part assigned to him as perfectly as possible, so that a man who is a person must not only carry out his official functions objectively, but must at all times and in all circumstances play the role of a person in a flawless manner. Society demands this as a kind of surety; each must stand at his post, here a cobbler, there a poet. No man is expected to be both.

I can already see some problems with what Jung writes here, but before addressing him, I should back up and say that Jung doesn’t see the persona as a universal human condition, rather as something unique to the western developed world. He doesn’t believe that the eastern conception of the psyche is similar at all:

 It would be entirely logical if, by deepening that neglected, introverted side of our spiritual culture, there were to take place in us a transformation more akin to the Eastern frame of mind, where the quality of immortality would transfer itself from the ambiguous figure of the soul (anima) to the self.

I don’t want to get into the east/west schism right here, rather I just want to point out that if the concepts of persona and anima are flexible enough to have vastly different meanings in different places in the world at the same time, so too they probably change dramatically with the times. I believe Jung’s concept of the persona needs a major re-write.

We live in what is called a gig economy, where people are expected to wear many professional hats throughout their careers and, increasingly, even during the same days. Even those who are fortunate enough to maintain a single career throughout their lives are expected to take on dual roles of parenthood. And as we’ve all learned during the corona-lockdown, that can also mean becoming a home-schooling teacher. Given this, I don’t believe that society demands people take on a well-defined personal role as much now as it did 100 years ago.

Having said that, we are still expected to take on various persona. I, for one, am engaged in far more hobbies than any sane person should tackle at once. This requires more personality juggling than I am sometimes comfortable doing — I must pretend to be musician enough to keep up with my far more talented friends, I must learn enough shortcuts to fake as deep an understanding of baseball statistics as my fellow participants in my online baseball league, I have to do my best to keep up with real philosophers and psychologists — not to mention real bloggers — with this hobby. All of these acts of pseudo-expertise require a different persona.

It can get exhausting and can create real conflicts if my various persona come off as inauthentic when compared with one another. There were numerous times in my life when I felt the need to inflate my expertise in a field or hide some of my other interests from one group or other. I no longer feel that tug anymore and do my best to be open about my skill levels and various interests, but even on a pure time basis, being an authentic human being in the gig world is hard work.

So, persona is still a useful concept, but it probably means something a little different than what Jung described 100 years ago. The connective tissue between then and now is authenticity. How willingly does the individual accept the persona and let it dominate his personality? For more details about how I handled this in the past, read my “Catch Me If You Can” essay.

If you allow the persona to dominate your personality, the unconscious will inevitably revolt. This is how Jung describes it and note the heavy sexism in it. I will try to rescue the concept from these dated concepts below:

The persona, the ideal picture of a man as he should be, is inwardly compensated by feminine weakness, and as the individual outwardly plays the strong man, so he becomes inwardly a woman, i.e., the anima, for it is the anima that reacts to the persona. But because the inner world is dark and invisible to the extraverted consciousness, and because a man is all the less capable of conceiving his weaknesses the more he is identified with the persona, the persona’s counterpart, the anima.

The way I would translate this away from the cis-gendered pair bonding, male dominated culture of the early to mid-20th century is to say that the anima is not necessarily female, it is better described as alter-ego. Even that is a problematic phrase because the anima most certainly does not reside alongside the ego, it is in the unconscious. But given the way our language has evolved, we better understand what it means to have an alter-ego than we now believe that there is a female consciousness within a man and a male consciousness within a woman.

The way I would characterize the anima is this — who, in a certain point in your life, would you suddenly begin to follow, almost blindly, and bend your point of view in the world to more closely mirror? This person, in our contemporary culture, is likely to be male in certain points of your life, female in others. It might be impossible to determine why the anima attaches itself to a certain gender at a certain stage, but it probably has to do with a certain undeveloped part of your psyche.

The anima, returning to Jung’s concept, is whatever part of our psyche seems undernourished due to the predominance of our persona. So, having rescued the concept a bit, I’ll have Jung elaborate some more:

Just as, for the purpose of individuation, or self-realization, it is essential for a man to distinguish between what he is and how he appears to himself and to others, so it is also necessary for the same purpose that he should become conscious of his invisible system of relations to the unconscious, and especially of the anima, so as to be able to distinguish himself from her. One cannot of course distinguish oneself from something unconscious. In the matter of the persona it is easy enough to make it clear to a man that he and his office are two different things. But it is very difficult for a man to distinguish himself from his anima, the more so because she is invisible.

This is a very important concept, because we know the artifice involved in creation of a persona. We are very aware of the fact that we are putting on a mask and taking up a social role — something every non-psychotic should be very comfortable doing these days. We do this to fit in. But the anima is not our conscious creation, and therefore we have to be very careful in distinguishing ourselves from it or even learning how to take useful self talk from it. In fact, Jung says, learning about your anima can be a terrifying experience:

When a man recognizes that his ideal persona is responsible for his anything but ideal anima, his ideals are shattered, the world becomes ambiguous, he becomes ambiguous even to himself. He is seized by doubts about goodness, and what is worse, he doubts his own good intentions. When one considers how much our private idea of good intentions is bound with vast historical assumptions, it will readily be understood that it is pleasanter and more in keeping with our present view of the world to deplore a personal weakness than to shatter ideals.

To be in touch with the anima, it almost always has to be projected onto another person. Jung says it is projected onto a woman, but I do not believe this is the case any longer. If what is missing from your life the qualities you perceived to be in a woman, then yes, this will occur. But if those missing qualities comes from a man, or even a dog, the projection could go that direction as well.

Once we recognize this projection, it is up to us to interpret the anima. What is this anima telling us at this moment in our lives? How can we make the most of this separate personality that our psyche has create? Here’s how Jung describes the process:

We would be better advised to investigate what is behind the tendencies of the anima. The first step is what I would call the objectivation of the anima, that is, the strict refusal to regard the trend towards separation as a weakness of one’s own. Only when this has been done can one face the anima with the question, “Why do you want this separation?” To put the question in this personal way has the great advantage of recognizing the anima as a personality, and of making a relationship possible. The more personally she is taken the better … he is quite right to treat the anima as an autonomous personality and to address personal questions to her.

Here’s where we get to the really fascinating part of the concept (for me at least) — we have to get to the point where we can hold critical conversations with the anima for it to become useful to us:

The psyche not being a unity but a contradictory multiplicity of complexes, the dissociation required for our dialectics with the anima is not so terribly difficult. The art of it consists only in allowing our invisible partner to make herself heard, in putting the mechanism of expression momentarily at her disposal, without being overcome by the distaste one naturally feels at playing such an apparently ludicruous game with oneself, or by doubts as to the genuineness of the voice of one’s interlocutor. This latter point is technically very important: we are so in the habit of identify ourselves with the thoughts that come to us that we invariably assume we have made them. Curiously enough, it is precisely the most impossible thoughts for which we feel the greatest subjective responsibility. If we were more conscious of the inflexible universal laws that govern even the wildest and most wanton fantasy, we might perhaps be in a better position to see these thoughts above all others as objective occurrences, just as we see dream, which nobody supposes to be deliberate or arbitrary inventions.

This explains to me in part why I have felt such a loss over the past few months over the end of a therapeutic relationship that I now see as a personification of the anima. When the relationship was most effective to me, I believe I was engaging in this kind of dialogue with my anima. Looking back now, I see that this dialogue had already cracked under the strain of two human beings trying to manage their own interpersonal dynamics and therefore became unable to hold up the pretext of this anima talk any longer. But I retained the memory of the best discussions, which gave me a sense that my anima was housed outside of me and without access to further talk, I was shut off from my anima permanently. That was a devastating loss and Jung anticipated the terrible consequences that could result from a situation like it:

The reader may ask in some consternation, “But what on earth does the anima do, that such double insurances are needed before one can come to terms with her?” I would recommend my reader to study the comparative history of religion so intently as to fill these dead chronicles with the emotional life of those who lived these religions. Then he will get some idea of what lives on the other side. The old religions with their sublime and ridiculous, their friendly and fiendish symbols did not drop from the blue, but were born of this human soul that dwells within us at this moment. All those things, their primal forms, live on in us and may at any time burst in upon us with annihilating force, in the guise of mass-suggestions against which the individual is defenseless.

The anima can be a great destroyer and in human hands, the results can be brutal — especially if that human is completely unaware of the power that has been transferred to her. In the long run, the most productive course is to remind yourself that the anima is within and can be reached via self talk — and we should learn to argue back with our anima:

It could therefore be said just as truly that one should cultivate the art of conversing with oneself in the setting provided by an affect, as though the affect itself were speaking without regard to our rational criticism. So long as the affect is speaking, criticism must be withheld. But once it has presented its case, we should begin criticizing as conscientiously as though a real person closely connected with us were our interlocutor. . . . Whether the result is satisfactory or now, only subjective feeling can decide. Any humbug is of course quite useless. Scrupulous honesty with oneself and no rash anticipation of what the other side might conceivably say are the indispensable conditions of this technique for educating the anima.

In describing the anima, Jung quotes from the Pierre Benoit novel “Atlantida,” written in 1919. Here is how Benoit describes this powerful creature, called Antinea in his book, that we should be careful to keep at arms length — and whose thoughts we cannot allow to dominate us:

“Do not speak until you have seen her. A university training hardly fits one to discourse upon matters of passion, and I feel scarcely qualified, myself, to tell you what Antinea is. I only affirm this, that when you have seen her, you will remember nothing else. Family, country, honor, you will renounce everything for her.”

“Everything?” asked Morhange in a calm voice.

“Everything,” Le Mesge insisted emphatically. “You will forget all, you will renounce all.”