American Archetypes: Power & Humility

I’ve always been a sucker for the great Jungian archetypes. When Jammie-Wearing-Fool pointed this out, the Times’ image reverberated. But not in a completely pleasant way. The Hitler meme may be tired, but my instinctive memory was of Triumph of the Will, which taught me how much images evoked even when they are countered by reason and knowledge.

A Reynolds’ reader points out the cross isn’t appropriate for the leader of the most powerful nation on earth; he’s more a Herod/Caeser/Pilate. And perhaps Lent isn’t a great time to blaspheme. But, then, does the Times even know the meaning that gives power to the symbols they manipulate? They swim through a world whose history is rich with such symbols, but they don’t understand the richness within an image. Of course, they do cherish that frisson of edgy sentiment. And they know enough to know that they lose power if the images are of chocolates and the Easter Bunny. (Unless, of course, like the New Yorker, they crucify the bunny.) The Times doesn’t seem campy – over-the-top, perhaps, but not ironic.

But I’m not so easily seduced – indeed, something else strikes me. This picture doesn’t have American heroism, doesn’t have the power of the great American archetypes. American history is of humility linked with grandeur: our presidents are large not because the White House is in their shadow, but rather because they are in its. Neither larger than the office nor wiser than the Constitution, their heroism comes because they reverence those ideas, losing their selves in them. Enlarged by the White House, they are well aware of the distinction between their private selves and the public office they hold but for a term or two.

Our presidents have needed a sureness of touch, a confidence that orders men into battle. But they also needed humility. George Washington handing over his sword, George Washington handing over his office – these are symbols of heroism. Many a man has been a general; few have had the self-respect, the pride in country and history (minimal as that history was for that early, role-defining president), the humility before not the founders but the founders’ ideas. Such humility gives backbone; it comes from a large, simple and even ego-less pride.

We haven’t been seeing much humility lately. But that is what moves us; it structures the archetypes Americans catch their breath over, indeed, the ones that mist our eyes.

9 thoughts on “American Archetypes: Power & Humility”

  1. During the campaign, wasn’t there a furor over crosses in the podium of McCain? Romney? Let the furor commence. As an atheistic leftist, I demand Commandante Zero’s immediate resignation for this shameless breach of the church-state barrier!

  2. There was a furor over an image from bookcases behind Huckabee in a TV speech. The actual ad has been blocked but it can be seen in this piece.

    Obama seems to be in the classic situation of believing his own BS. The Greeks called it hubris and I just hope it doesn’t end in tragedy, such as an Iran-Israel nuclear exchange. Even AIPAC has now complained about his treatment of Israel the past few days. He really thinks he is a towering intellect.

  3. Thanks for posting this, Ginny. An awful lot of political persuasion takes place below the level of logical argument: through such things as images, popular music, etc.

  4. Michael: The thing about tragedy is its inevitable course. We, unfortunately, are the chours, who can watch and warn, but cannot defect the protagonist from the inevitable progression. From arete (“excellence”) such as great power, great beauty or great prowess, a man may develop hubris (“arrogant pride”), which in turn leads to ate (“blind recklessness” the final letter is pronounced), when he loses his sense of humility and becomes rash or imprudent. Ate, in turn, leads to nemesis (“retributive justice”).

  5. Michael/Robert:

    “The machine is in perfect order; it has been oiled ever since time began, and it runs without friction”

    Jean Anouilh’s version of Antigone.

  6. The pride is, I suspect, at least partially that of the Times, which is challenged in its own way – and, if this icon was their idea, failing the challenge.

    You all seem to say that we (and those from countries where democide kills more than war – and war has & will kill plenty) are the peasants? “Chorus” throws up a nicer image than pawn, but I suspect the latter is more descriptive. Late twentieth century heroes hover; heroes become Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. The peasants may be conscious, but, it gives us little control.

    That idea – that we don’t have control – is not natural to Americans; note how quickly we became restive under such paternalism. But whatever happens, Obama was once president of the most powerful nation on earth. He has that. His tragedy (and ours if he screws up as some of you think he will and I fear he will) is that he doesn’t seem to understand why or how it became powerful – or how grave its responsibilities are. His sense of history is narrow and narrowing – he seems to remember a grievance against the UK, a politicized history – of America, of Israel, of Europe.

    At least today Chet Edwards voted against his party – though if he will do that when it counts is doubtful.

  7. My understanding is that hubris is not mere arrogance- it is imposing on others your superiority. You wil eat this shit sandwich I am so generously giving you and will acknowledge how wonderful it tastes.
    This eldom ends well.

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