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We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love Paperback – July 28, 2009
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"WE retells the myth of Tristan and Iseult, one of the earliest romance tales, and uses it as a reference point to explain the essence and meaning of romantic love. Employing Jungian philosophy, Robert A. Johnson uncovers many of the unconscious beliefs about love shared by both sexes and shows how these attitudes are expressed symbolically in the Tristan myth. lie then breaks down the illusions we often have of love myths in themselves and beautifully redefines what love should and can be. An elegantly constructed, superior inquiry into the psychology of love." -- AKA Booklist
About the Author
Robert A. Johnson, a noted lecturer and Jungian analyst, is also the author of He, She, We, Inner Work, Ecstasy, Transformation, and Owning Your Own Shadow.
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WHAT YOU FIND IN THE BOOK
It is Johnson's trademark using classic mythology to dig a hole in our personal and cultural psyche and explain who we are, how we behave and why. Like many of his other works, "We" uses a myth, in this case the myth of Tristant and Isold (or Iseult) to take us in a long ride that goes from the 12th century to the modern times having as a connector the ideal of Romantic Love in Society, in relationships, and in our psyche.
The book is well structured and narrated in a very beautiful prose. Although no footnotes are provided, the book is the most academic of Johnson's books. The general introduction, and the chapters On Myths and Note for Women form a sort of prologue. In them you get, in a nutshell, what the aim of the following exploration is, what the book is about and is not, and a short consideration on the use of the versions of the myth used for the study. Johnson approaches and analyses the myth from a Jungian Psychology point of view not for a Literary point view.
Four parts follow. The beginning of each part is a condensed summary of the myth, which is followed by several chapters analysing the symbols, characters, and dynamics explored in that part of the myth from a Jungian psychology point of view.
The conclusion is structured in three chapters it is great, brilliant at times. In it, Johnson tries to give a practical solution to what to do with the information the analysis gives us. The book ends with a list of references of the books quoted in the book, as well as a recommended reading list. A bit outdated, but good nevertheless.
THE USE OF MYTHS IN JUNGIAN PSYCHOLOGY
Why using a myth to analyse the ideal of Romantic Love, you will ask. Johnson summarises it in this simple way:
"The myth not only records the dynamics of romantic love in the male psyche, it also reflects the fate of the feminine in our culture" (... )A myth is the collective “dream” of an entire people at a certain point in their history. It is as though the entire population dreamed together, and that “dream,” the myth, burst forth through its poetry, songs, and stories. (...) The myth of Tristan and Iseult is a profound expression of the Western psyche."
The way Johnson is able to dissect the myth without forgetting the historical context that led to its birth is something remarkable taking into account that he is not a historian. This is not to say that some of his statements are not controversial, mostly because of lack of a proper academic apparatus and footnoting.I was mesmerised by Johnson's easiness as having a myth peeled off, layer by layer until it connects with things that we modern humans still do.
This reflection of the female/feminine element and patriarchate in the Western Culture are priceless and very relevant to this very day. Most of the Note for Women reflects on this issue and on the fact that this is a male-made myth not a female one, and the shortcomings that can derive from the vision of the feminine from it.
There are different levels of analysis of the myth, that are all interconnected and intermingled: 1/ The historical approach to the text to understand why it is what it is. 2/ The analyses of the symbols in the myth. 3/ The analyses of the dynamics between our own psyche, that is, between the conscious and unconscious in our psyche. 4/ The depiction of the ways of relating in romantic relationships in the myth and how we are still replicating them; and 5/ the reasons for the ideal of romantic ideal being so strong (and destructive at times) in the Western Culture. This is also a great book to understand what Anima/Animus are and what Psychological Projections are and how they manifest.
Johnson succeeds at many fronts in this book, especially at analysing what romance and romantic ideals are, and how they undermine our personal lives and Society. He is able to explain the substratum that is the basis of that need for romance and romantic ideals and what the ideal is seeking in our inner world and in our unconscious.
JOHNSON DOES NOT PREACH OR MORALISE IN THIS BOOK
Despite what many reviews say, this is not a religious book or John does not preach. See what I say in the paragraphs below. First at all, Jungian psychology is more spiritual than any other psychological discipline, but it is not religious. Even Johnson says that you have to decide what religion and God are to you, and he speaks of God and the Gods. In that regard, you can criticise his Jungian approach, not the way he links spirituality and psyche, as soul and self are concepts intrinsically linked in Jungian Psychology and Johnson is doing a Jungian approach to the text. In other words, a disregard for the connection self as a soul is not Jungian. Yet, just read Johnson's definition of "soul" in this book as psychological entity and tell me that this is religious. It is not. Johnson, despite being a religious person, is good enough to detach himself for his personal religious preferences and speak in ways that touch people like me, who are not religious.If this was not enough, the use of some Christian references is not literal. Johnson never uses her examples from the Bible in a literal way, ever. Just see the way he explains the Jesus' human-divine duality. Having said that, I think Johnson is a son of his time, and uses religion and spirituality as synonyms, something that is not so common nowadays.
WHAT WE LEARN FROM THE MYTH AND WHAT TO DO WITH IT
The analysis of the myth shows us patterns of behaviour, psyche structures and couples dynamics that go from the past towards our present times. As Johnson says, it doesn't tell us what to do with that information, how to us it so we are able to reduce or eliminate projections in romantic relationships and channel them in a productive way. The Conclusion is aimed to do so. The answer is given using the same mythological basis, but using the advice of two different mythical languages 1/ the myth of the Oglala Sioux Nation (the story of the Bison Spirit Woman), and 2/ in the language of dreams, by using the dream of f one of Johnson's clients (The Bell of the Holy Virgin).
Johnson concludes that romantic projections are, in essence, deep down, a quest to communicate with the most sacred part of our inner self, but just expressed in the reverse way. The passions of romance or drugs, the seek for physical possessions, have in common an misdirected unhealthy way to reach that our psyche seeks. We need to redirect that energy towards the right place, so that we can "channel it correctly so that it will enrich our lives— in the realms both of spirit and of relationship— rather than sabotage them". How do we return to our inner sacred core, to our soul? "What is required is not so much an external, collective religion, but an inner experience of the numinous, divine realm that is manifested through the psyche" Dreamwork and archetypal inner work are a perfect alternative, numinous and spiritual at many levels, that can reach those places inside us that we consciously want to reach but unconsciously were are too afraid to.
>> One of the most interesting episodes of the myth, to me, appears narrated in part three, while the lovers are in the enchanted Garden and tell a hermit that confronts them on their wrongdoings:
“Lord, by God Almighty, He does not love me, Nor I him. It was because of an herb potion Of which I drank And he drank, too: it was a sin.”
I was expecting Johnson to comment on it at length as it is really intriguing. It is a moment of awakening, of consciousness of the unconscious if that can be said. It is like Adam and Eve a la Reverse. It is a lucid dreaming sort of episode as well because when they are saying that, they are truly not projecting. The episode contrasts remarkably with the attitude of both characters before and after this episode. No word is deserved to it. How is that possible? I am dying to find this episode explained "Jungiangly". Anyone?
>> The major flaw of the book is the last chapter in the Conclusion. I was in awe at finding Johnson's projections on other Culture so patently obvious. He compares Western ways of relating and Eastern-Indian ways. He spent a good deal of time in India, obviously with good families and friends, and uses his own experience to produce a pinkie version of the Indian way of relating, Indian families, Indian couples and love relations. Some affirmations made cringe, even shriek. Statements of the sort that Indian families are healthier, and they produce non neurotic children, that they are not romance based and that projections basically do not exist. I consider that a big blind in front of Johnson's eyes. Have you ever watched a Bollywood movie? That would suffice to show how projections show in Indian culture, specifically. The fact is that relationships between women and men in India are far from ideal and vary from family to family, like in the West. Too many women are still treated as mere objects and possessions, women are raped on a daily basis in Delhi, and their raping and rapists are justified by a good part of Society and the legal system. The documentary on the girl brutally raped and murdered on a bus in India a few years ago, would suffice to show how many men treat women in India, and how well educated people did justify it. Some women of my age only speak to their husbands when asked, The cast system is still well alive in India, even though it is not politically correct or modern to say so. There are 3-5 years old children begging for money, alone, at 5am in the morning in some major train stations. You can ignore that part of Indian reality and present just the pinkie version of Indian families. I think that there are good and bad families everywhere, and that the way Indian people project are different from us, but they still project.
Personally, I would recommend starting with We, and then He and She, and not the other way around, even though We is a later book, just because you want to start with a clear idea of what Johnson does, how he approaches any myth or subject, and not having to guess that. We is a brilliant book and He and She do not match that greatness as they were published lectures not real books.
ON THE COVER
The covers of Johnson's books on Kindle are usually dreadful, you wonder why investing so little in making the book shine also outside, but the cover of this Kindle edition is just beautiful and perfect for the book. A wild poppy.
Since reading We, my husband and I have worked to ground our marriage with what Johnson calls: "stirring the oatmeal"... an expression I love! By removing our projections of the perfect partner and consciously appreciating the other's flaws, we remember that authentic love is humble and long lasting, like oatmeal. It's so much better than the instant gratification of cereal and milk, which leaves you hungry way before lunch! But really, there is so much Johnson helps you see about our culture that makes it so hard to love! He claims that romantic love is an "unholy muddle of two holy loves" and says that "by some trick of psychological evolution our culture has muddled the two loves in a potion of romantic love and has nearly lost them both."
Johnson has a trademark writing style, which can also be found in his books titled He and She. In We, he uses the ancient, mythological narrative of two lovers, Tristan and Iseult, to explore the origins of romantic love and what it is, how it has infiltrated our Western psyche and affects our relationships with ourselves and others, and what we should do about it. The author is also a renowned Jungian analyst, which is incorporated into his examination of the subconscious and how relationships deteriorate into egotism.
I really liked We, and I hope you will too. The only issues I had was that it focused on the male psychology a bit more than female in the relationship. For more reading on this subject, I would recommend: Ehrich Neumann's Amor and Psyche, which is a classic examination of the role love plays in female psychology and Impossible Love: Or Why the Heart Must Go Wrong by Jan Bauer.