A Sleep and a Forgetting

by Muriel McMahon

I went to a Memorial Service recently.  It was called a “Celebration of Life”.  The dearly departed had been entombed for six months before family and friends gathered.  It was sad, but not sad in the way one would expect of a funeral.  It was sad because there was so little grief.  There was an unspoken expectation that the six months between the dying and the gathering, the grieving process was to have been completed.  The messiness of sorrow should have been cleaned up.  The unbearable shock of life continuing without this one in it was decreed to have been integrated.  W.H. Auden and his unrestrained sentiments were surely not welcome.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come…


An elder I worked with for a number of years once chided me for my reference to the “culture of our times”.  He argued that culture had been eclipsed by what he called a “cultural syndrome”.  I had to think about that for a bit.  “What is culture?” I wondered.  When I turned to my Oxford companion for guidance, I found a double definition.  One definition for the Humanities and one for Biology.  The former suggested that my teacher was probably correct in his assessment that what culture is and should be was being eroded.  The latter affirmed that my teacher’s assessment of our times was in fact astute.  Are we not in fact cultivating psychological and social bacteria in the artificial medium of our times?  Are we not in fact feeding and being fed upon by our collective death phobia and death denial?  Has the individuation principle enshrined in our Western constitutions and introduced to psychoanalysis by Carl Jung been contaminated?  Do the screaming headlines and Twitter quips speak of a Western collective cultural complex?  What becomes of the unshed tears of the tribe when a loved one passes and is memorialized at a “Celebration of Life”?

Most indigenous, if not all indigenous societies have a ‘culture of the dead’.  The Day of the Dead, Ancestor Altars, Ghost Dances, Bardo Meditations, Famadihana, to name but a few, are evidence of the almost universal moral mandate of the community to carry their dead.  Here in the West, in our times, it is my observation, that we no longer carry our dead.  They are forgotten.  Death and the full trajectory of the archetypal experience associated with death is, more often than not, ignored, expedited, or repressed.  We do not collectively carry our dead—our forbearers, our ancestors—with much consciousness.  Psychoanalyst Robert Langs chided, most poignantly in Death Anxiety and Clinical Practice (1997) that we are death phobic and death denying.  Sigmund Freud theorized that culture itself is founded on the mediated expression of thwarted Thanatos.  Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) represents a continuation of Freud’s work in Beyond the Pleasure Principle ( 1920) wherein he acknowledged the existence of a death drive that opposes the drive toward life. Freud saw life as a struggle between Eros and Thanatos. Perhaps this is what my elder called a ‘cultural syndrome’, the one-sided allegiance to life.  As a Jungian analyst, I would call this a ‘cultural complex’, a trans-generational complex, and in the growing dis-ease of our of times, one worthy of deep analysis.

On one level, this cultural complex sanitizes our gatherings when one of us dies.  In a NFDA research study, less than 52% of Americans believe that funerals are important.  What are the consequences of this shift in the community, such that it no longer experiences the archetypal expressions of death?  What happens when the full expression of the archetype is denied, repressed, or obliterated from consciousness?  What happens to a death deferred?  An ancestor forgotten?  A ancestral story repressed?  An archetype denied full expression?  For some thirty years I have been researching trans-generational complexes and their transmission in personal and collective psychopathy.  There is an ancient indigenous greeting from the people of the Pacific Northwest of Canada that in translation asks, “How is your face blooming on your ancestral tree?”.  In this indigenous tradition, the individual is known as the flower of their ancestral stalk.  Despite what the postmodern constructivists would have us believe, we most surely do not invent ourselves.  We come encoded. William Wordsworth says the same in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; 

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting And cometh from afar;

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy! 

We are so much more than what we think and what we feel.  Thoughts and feelings, while important, are like weather.  Their subjectivity requires our attention but because of their inherent relativity, we would not build the foundation of our home on their variable information.  Nor are we advised to build our psychological home on the patterns or blueprints of inherited complexes.  We are surely rooted in history.  We are rooted in personal, cultural, and collective history.  Ignoring kinship libido does not eradicate it.  The yearning for tribal or ancestral belonging, the communion of the dead, can unconsciously and destructively be lived out in tribalism.  Exploring the dead in the ancestral field of our collective unconscious through depth psychological and sociological approaches may be what is needed to de-potentiate the threat to the individual or individualization as seen in the growing tyranny of the subjective and the syndrome of identity politics and their ideologues.

Jung expressed his understanding of the ancestors and the ancestral field in Analytical Psychology: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1925 Jung states: “There is one ego in the conscious and another made up of unconscious ancestral elements, by the force of which a man who has been fairly himself over a period of years suddenly falls under the sway of an ancestor” (38). Consider the autonomous nature of the trans-generational complex.  In Jung’s parlance, the “unconscious ancestral elements” are autonomous.  In a profound exploration of ancestral inheritance through Family Constellations work in his book  Tears of the Ancestors:  Victims and Perpetrators in the Tribal Soul (2008), Daan van Kampenhout argues: “There is no doubt that we have an individual soul, but the Tribal Soul has us.”  Jung and the early Jungians diagramed this blueprint of the psyche and named this ancestral field, the cultural unconscious, when constellated, under the pull or sway of kinship libido.


A. Individual

B. Family

C. Clan

D. Nation

E. Large group (e.g., Europe)

F. Primeval ancestors

G. Animal ancestors in general

H. Central fire


Diagram:  Barbara Hannah, Jung: His Life and Work 

Jungian analyst Tess Castleman referred to the C, D, and E level of the psychic hierarchy as the “tribal unconscious”.  She asserts in her book, Threads Knots Tapestries that although modern western people no longer live in tribes, psyche still dreams us at this level.  Behavioural ecologists/psychologists would posit that we can glimpse the ancestral psyche, with its inherited instincts and trans-generational complexes in our dreams and in our symptoms.  Epigenetic research articulates that gene potential is passed from generation to generation, and while it may lay dormant, it can also be activated by environmental and sociological conditions.

In his 1925 Seminar, Jung states: “Perhaps certain traits belonging to the ancestors get buried away in the mind as complexes with a life of their own which has never been assimilated into the life of the individual, and then, for some unknown reason, these complexes become activated, step out of their obscurity in the folds of the unconscious, and begin to dominate the whole mind. (39)

What Jung refers to here is the concept of possession.  Not possession in the spiritual or religious understanding that many horror movies exploit, but in the psychological sense of the ego falling under the influence of the unconscious autonomous complex.  In his book, Hauntings – Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives (2013), Jungian analyst James Hollis writes about the ghosts that dwell in our psyche and advocates for making these ‘ghosts’ conscious.  In his  Septem Sermones ad Mortuos, Jung writes a compelling account of his encounter with the laments of the dead and the constellation of the ancestral field.

It began with a restlessness, but I did not know what it meant or what “they” wanted of me. There was an ominous atmosphere all around me. I had the strange feeling that the air was filled with ghostly entities. Then it was as if my house began to be haunted….

Around five o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday the front doorbell began ringing frantically…but there was no one in sight. I was sitting near the doorbell, and not only heard it but saw it moving. We all simply stared at one another. The atmosphere was thick, believe me! Then I knew that something had to happen. The whole house was filled as if there were a crowd present, crammed full of spirits. They were packed deep right up to the door, and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe. As for myself, I was all a-quiver with the question: “For God’s sake, what in the world is this?” Then they cried out in chorus, “We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought.” (190-1)

In nations embroiled in a cultural complex that have neglected to carry their dead, ghosts and their lamentations can erupt into consciousness and, in some cases, take over the agency of the individual.  This is frightening enough when the possession is personal, potentially devastating when it is collective.  In his essay “Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype,” Jung reminds us, “A complex can be really overcome only if it is lived out to the full. In other words, if we are to develop further we have to draw to us and drink down to the very dregs what, because of our complexes, we have held at a distance”.

As men and women born into the field of the power hierarchy known in the West as the patriarchy, there is much that we have held at a distance.  There is much that has been hidden from us.  There is much that we and our forbearers have endured.  Cultural roles and mores are developed through our interaction with the sociological field we inhabit, and this field is peopled with our kin, our ancestors, and their undigested or forgotten traumas.  Since we no longer carry our dead nor their stories in consciousness, in rituals, in ceremonies, how stilted is our development.  Stilted by the trans-generational trauma complexes that have chained our forbearers, us, and perhaps our descendants to reiterating oppression and the unconscious eruption of archetypal shadow energies.

The Seven Generations Prophecy of the Americas (McFadden, S., 2005) tells us that we are the seventh generation and who we are today is influenced by the seven generations that preceded us and what we do or fail to do will influence the seven generations that follow.  If the shape of my nose is determined by my DNA, by the people who have gone before me, why not the bent of my character or the nature of my complexes?

In contemporary literature and in cinema there is a fascination with zombies and the zombie apocalypse.  In Septem Sermones, Jung tells us that the dead do come back from Jerusalem because they did not find what they sought.  Maybe it is the forgotten dead who are returning.  The cinematic zombie apocalypse does not look any different from what we see in the newsreels from white nationalists’ riots in Charlottesville, VA or ‘No Platform’ demonstrations on the campuses of our liberal arts universities.  We are in the grip of something bigger and darker than what collective consciousness can manage.   In Lament of the Dead:  Psychology After Jung’s Red Book (2013) Sonu Shamdasani—in dialogue with James Hillman though the text was not published until after Hillman’s death—refers to Jung’s personal confrontation with the unconscious  and articulates our collective mandate.  As Jung did personally, we must do so collectively.  As we bear witness to the collective eruptions of tribalism, we must awake and remember what Shamdasani writes:  “It is the ancestors.  It is the dead.  This is no mere metaphor… When he talks about the dead he means the dead… They still live on” (2).


Works Cited

Auden, W.H. “Funeral Blues” (1938), The Year’s Poetry, Estate of W. H. Auden,  London, 1938.

Castleman, Tess, Threads Knots Tapestries, Daimon Verlag, 2004.

Freud, Sigmund, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, W. W. Norton & Company; The Standard edition,1990.

Freud, Sigmund, Civilization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition, 2010.

Hannah, Barbara, Jung:  His Life and Work, Putnam Adult; First edition, 1976.

Hillman, J., and Shamdasani, S., Lament of the Dead:  Psychology After Jung’s Red Book, S. W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition, 2013.

Hollis, James, Hauntings:  Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives, Chiron Publications, 2015.

Jung, C.G.  Introduction to Jungian Psychology:  Notes on the Seminar Given in 1925, Princeton University Press; Revised ed. edition, 2011.

Jung, C. G. Collected Works, Volume 9i, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, “Psychological Aspects of the Mother Complex”, Princeton University Press; 2 edition 1981.

Jung, C. G. Memories, Dreams and Reflections, Vintage; 1 edition, 1989.

Jung, C.G. The Red Book:  A Reader’s Edition, WW Norton; Lea edition, 2012.

Langs, Robert, Death Anxiety and Clinical Practice, Routledge; 1 edition, 1997.

McFadden, Steven, Profiles in Wisdom: Native Elders Speak About the Earth, Harlem Writers Guild Press, 1991.

van Kampenhout, D., The Tears of the Ancestors: Victims and Perpetrators in the Tribal Soul, Zeig, Tucker & Theisen; first edition, 2008.

Wordsworth, William. Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. 1919. The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1900. Oxford: Clarendon, 1919.



  1. Dear Muriel,
    Your article resonates in a profound way. My Fahter’s murder over 40 years ago, continues to draw me into conversation, writing, studies about the relationship to the murderer.

    Margot Van Sluytman/Raven Speaks.


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