Expression and empathy part 1: Why the long face?

Some thoughts on facial expression and empathy. I want to start by talking about solitary smiling. I have particularly in mind the so-called Duchenne smile: the genuine grin of delight that moves the eyes as well as the mouth, and which, evidence suggests, is difficult or even impossible to produce voluntarily. But other sorts of smile will also be relevant. Why the interest? To explain, we can take a quick detour through some theory.

On what was apparently long the dominant view of emotional expression, facial expressions are the causal result of occurrent mental states. Smiling, for example, is a form of human behaviour which results from the occurrence of feelings of happiness and the like. This sort of view can be traced back at least to Darwin. He opposed the idea that expressive behaviour arose because it played a communicative role. Instead, he thought, it was either the vestige of some earlier beneficial behaviour, or else the incidental result of other physiological processes.

Alun Fridlund proposes an alternative “ecological” conception of expression. On this conception, what matters is not the internal states of animals, but rather the pragmatic function of their behaviour. An animal bares its teeth to avoid conflict. Another makes a defensive gesture indicating the willingness and ability to flee, for just the same reason. That these animals may simultaneously experience fear or feelings of aggression is essentially irrelevant.

This is not just a dispute about the evolutionary origins of expression, about history: it concerns also the nature of the phenomenon. To see the crux of the dispute, consider what the anomalous cases, the cases particularly in need of explanation, are for each side. For the dominant view, the anomalous case is that of false expression of emotions. The theorist must think of the dissembling animal as exploiting pre-existing natural (and perhaps also, in part, conventional) connections in order to dissemble.

For the ecological view, by contrast, the contrast between veracity and dissembling is relatively unimportant. The interestingly anomalous case is that of the solitary expression of the emotions. Why do we smile in private? Fridlund postulates that we are imagining an audience, or alternatively treating ourselves as interactants (as we frequently do in inner monologue). Not a problem for the dominant view: the smile bursts forth in states of solitary happiness just as it does in public.

Evidence gathered by Fridlund suggests that smiles depend more on the subject’s degree of sociability than on intensity of feeling. We tend to smile more in company; what’s more, even in solitude, we smile more when other people are pertinent. For example, solitary subjects are more likely to smile at a stimulus (a film, say), if told that a friend is watching the same film in another room. We also smile much more when talking on the telephone than we otherwise do while alone.

Supposing facial expression to be essentially communicative in function, what sort of equipment do we need to be sensitive to it? I’ll take this up in the next post.

Jung’s Blake part 4: Introduction to Zen Buddhism

The final reference to Blake in Jung’s published work occurs in his foreword to Suzuki’s book Introduction to Zen Buddhism, published in 1939. In this piece, Jung laments the backwardness of Western culture, which has failed to produce the conditions necessary for the “healing” or “making whole” of the self, which he takes to be the aim of Zen. Psychotherapy also aims for such a making whole, but its procedures take longer and face more resistance, precisely because of the adverse cultural conditions.

What are these adverse conditions? The root of the problem seem to lie in the lack of commitment to a deep transformation of the self, understood as a task which requires far-reaching sacrifice of time and energy. Such a commitment requires a “total experience”, but the most Western culture has attained in that direction has been either “magic” or “mystery cults” (among which Jung numbers Christianity), or purely intellectual efforts, including those of philosophers like Schopenhuaer.

More than religion or philosophy as conventionally understood, certain literary authors have come closer to expressing the “total experience” that Jung values. He mentions part two of Goethe’s Faust, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, and, in a footnote, “the English mystic William Blake.” These are all also authors who fall within the category of “visionary literature” which we discussed in part two of this series.

Even these, however, are “overlaid” with the “materiality and obviousness” of our culture, so that we do not know what their longer-term significance may be. In the version reprinted in the collected works, the term “obviousness” is replaced by “concreteness”.

I certainly don’t want to comment on Zen. But it’s worth noting that for Blake there is nothing wrong with “materiality”. His vision of imagination is one in which objects are transformed by human creative effort: this means engraving and sculpting and painting as much as detached thought. (Note that Blake’s books of poetry are also art objects). The end of Jerusalem gives his vision:

All Human Forms identified, even Tree, Metal, Earth & Stone

Jung’s Blake part 3: Individual dream symbolism

In a text of 1936 entitled ‘Individual dream symbolism in relation to alchemy’, Jung uses some watercolours by Blake as illustrating common symbols that appear in dreams. His interest, though, appears to be in the subject matter and not Blake’s interpretation.

The first is ‘Jacob’s Ladder’: dreams of a female figure (the dreamer’s anima) ascending or descending the stairs represent an ascent or descent in the dreamer’s future.



The second is from Blake’s illustrations of Dante. The anima (Dante’s Beatrice) now appears as psychopomp or spiritual guide.

The Ascent of the Mountain of Purgatory 1824-7 by William Blake 1757-1827
The Ascent of the Mountain of Purgatory 1824-7 William Blake 1757-1827 Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the National Gallery and donations from the Art Fund, Lord Duveen and others, and presented through the the Art Fund 1919


Jung’s Blake part 2: Psychology and literature

The second of Jung’s references to Blake appears in his 1929 essay ‘Psychology and literature’. In this essay, Jung distinguishes between two types of literature. The first is psychological, in the sense that the author is doing a sort of psychology – and, often enough, Jung thinks, doing it very well. In literature of this type, which includes what we would conventionally call the psychological novel, human behaviour and characteristics are elucidated and explained. The second type is visionary: here psychological phenomena are exhibited which call for psychological interpretation. It is this second type which is of particular interest to the practising psychologist: in the first, the psychologist’s work is, as it were, already done. A further difference is that the first type largely concerns the conscious mind; the second type reaches down into the unconscious.

Jung does not think of psychology as concerning itself with the visionary writer, but rather with the writing itself. This chimes with the way he spoke throughout his career of unconscious phenomena as having symbolic content. Such content is available to be expressed in literary work. Blake is twice mentioned, in this essay, as an example of a visionary writer.

Visionary writers express a “primordial experience” which is obscure, amorphous, and in itself imageless and wordless. They typically reach for mythological characters and situations in order to give literary form to what is, in itself, formless. In 1929 Jung says that “Blake invents for himself indescribable figures” in order to achieve this. In a 1950 expansion of the essay – which is what appears in Jung’s collected works – he recognises that Blake did not invent his mythology out of whole cloth. Instead he “presses into his service the phantasmagoric worlds of India, the Old Testament, and the Apocalypse.”

I think this is an interesting way of approaching Blake’s work. But it’s important to notice that it strays far from Blake’s own conception of his work. Blake always emphasises definiteness and precision as characteristics of visions and of good art: it is precisely here that we see clearly, and are able to delineate the true shapes of things. Blake’s visions, in his own conception, are very far from being amorphous or ineffable. This does not put Jung in the wrong: it may be that his conception of Blake’s work is more accurate than Blake’s own. But it does show an important gap between their ways of looking at things.

So far we have been looking only at Jung’s reaction to Blake as writer. In the next section we will glance at Blake the visual artist.

Jung’s Blake part 1: Psychological Types

Many readers have discerned an affinity between Jung and Blake. There are books offering Jungian readings of Blake, and others comparing their work. But so far as I can discover no-one has put together and discussed Jung’s own remarks on Blake, so I thought I might as well this myself. It should not be a very big task, as there are only three or four Jung texts in which Blake is mentioned, and none of these are very extended discussions. I’ll devote a blog post to each of these.

Jung first refers to Blake in his book Psychological Types, published in 1921. Much of the book is devoted to his distinction between the extroverted and introverted personalities. The extravert’s “fate is determined by the objects of his interest, while in [the introvert] it is determined more by the his own inner self, by the subject.” One theme is that the extravert becomes a slave to external things.

Jung traces a tradition in poetry and in religious writings that points to a cure for this disease: A sort of worship of the self, or of the soul, yielding self-sufficient strength in the face of external conditions. Jung describes this state (of bliss or ecstasy) by quoting The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Energy is Eternal Delight.” (In Blake these words are spoken by the ‘Voice of the Devil’, an important detail but one which Jung does not mention).

Later in the same book Jung refers again to the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake distinguishes between the ‘Prolific’ and the ‘Devouring’, and Jung thinks of these categories as corresponding to the extraverted and the introverted respectively. The key passage is as follows:

one portion of being is the Prolific, the other Devouring …

These two classes of men are always upon earth, & they should be enemies: whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.

Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two.

But in quoting these words, Jung omits the words “& they should be enemies: whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.” The unwary reader may think Blake is praising religion for reconciling the two.

Why associate the Prolific and the extroverted? A clue is in a strange diversion, later in Psychological Types, into what we would now call evolutionary psychology. Jung distinguishes two “modes of adaptation”, by which we means precisely biological adaptation. An animal can adapt by procreating quickly, even within a short lifespan; or by conserving energy and living a longer life even with less frequent procreation. This is supposed to be the foundation for the two psychological types. The extroverted personality is associated with the first adaptive mode; and here Jung mentions Blake again: this mode is indeed “prolific”.

Jung has unfortunately got Blake rather wrong here. The Prolific, the sources of energy and activity, are precisely not prisoners of external reality. On the contrary, they are its creators. Their acts of imagination have shaped reality. Their imaginative acts, we might even say, stem from the unconscious, which is the domain of Jung’s introvert. If anything it is the ‘Devourer’ who is the prisoner.

Secondly, religion’s calming and pacifying effect is deprecated by Blake and not praised. Its effect is not therapeutic, as Jung envisages, but limiting and restrictive, and even destructive of the creative imagination.

The next remark is in the essay “Psychology and literature”, which we’ll turn to in the next post.