The Anima: a post-Jungian perspectiveStephen Farah
The Jungian concept of the anima and animus is one of Jung’s most engaging and potent contributions to psychoanalysis. Of all the articles we have published on this site the posts on the anima and animus consistently get the most views and rank highest on Google’s search engines. It is one of those ideas that has come to be definitive of Jungian psychology.
Simultaneously, of all the concepts we have taught at the Centre none has proved more difficult than the anima and animus!
From my reading on this idea in contemporary Jungian literature and hearing several prominent Jungian scholars speak on the topic, this problem is conceptual and widespread. My friend and mentor Andrew Samuels once said to me that when he first encountered Jungian psychology, he considered the anima and animus to be the crown jewels. The emphasis being on the past tense of that consideration because he clearly had cause to reconsider such view over time.
Part of the difficulty is simply the complexity and subtlety of the idea. It is not the easiest idea to get a hold of and like many ideas in psychoanalysis it has a phenomenological character. It requires more than mere intellectual understanding. This is not to diminish the thinking function or to dismiss the need for clear rational articulation. Rather, as anyone who has spent enough time reflecting on and trying to get a hold of such an idea realises, it is more than an abstraction. It is an experience, and language is limited in its descriptive power to convey such experience.
This difficulty, the need for experience and not just rationalisation, is however, as mentioned, a ubiquitous one in the field of depth psychology. The added and particular complexity with the concept of the anima and animus is its prima facie sexism. It seemingly assumes and is built on an essentialist Platonic ontology where reality is governed by eternal archetypes. This essentialism extends in Jung’s model of the psyche to gender and he characterises the unconscious psyches of men and woman as distinct.
The anima of Jung’s theory, the feminine subpersonality of a male person and then animus, the masculine subpersonality of a female person, are biologically driven natural evolutions of contra sexuality.”
The additional and perhaps more challenging aspects of this essentialism is the apparent sexism and chauvinist bias in the characterisation of these two archetypes anima and animus by Jung.
This issue led to the following exchange with a female student on a group process I am currently facilitating for the Jungian Book Club based on the text The Secret of the Golden Flower. I think this exchange helps to illustrate the nature of the problem quite well in terms of how a female person might experience the theory as sexist and prejudicial. And hopefully, all be it too briefly, how a post-Jungian response may redeem the inherent sexism in the original theory.
I posted the following short extract from the SGF text and another passage from the Collected Works,
The word hun is translated by Wilhelm as animus…Hun means then, “cloud-daemon,” a higher, spirit-soul belonging to the yang principle and therefor masculine…The Anima called p’o…is “white-ghost”, belongs to the earth-bound, bodily soul partakes of the yin principle and is therefore feminine….The fact that the animus as well as the anima part after death and go their separate ways independently, shows that…they are separable psychic factors which have markedly different effects, and, despite the fact that they are originally untied in “one effective true essence,” in the “ house of the creative”, they are two.
The animus is in the Heavenly Heart….by day it lives in the eyes (that is in consciousness)…it is that “which we have received from the great emptiness, that which has form from the very beginning.” The anima on the other hand, is the force of heaviness and sadness”; it clings to the bodily, fleshy heart. “Moods and impulses to anger” are its effects. “whoever is dull and moody on waking is fettered by the anima.
(C. G. Jung, The Secret of the Golden Flower. ‘Animus and Anima’, p. 114)
There is no position without its negation. In or just because of their extreme opposition, neither can exist without the other. It is exactly as formulated in classical Chinese philosophy: yang (the light, warm, dry, masculine principle) contains within it the seed of yin (the dark, cold, moist, feminine principle), and vice versa. Matter therefore would contain the seed of spirit and spirit the seed of matter.”
(Carl Jung, CW 9i, para. 197)
This post provoked the following response from one of the female members of the group,
…words, or concepts they represent, acquire lives of their own, especially after millennia of use. So it is for me with “masculine/animus” and “feminine/anima.” My life experience and my wounding under the patriarchal system inform my perspective. I am not a vocal feminist, but I am a feminine living and having my being in a masculine created and masculine controlled world. Even what I am as a woman is defined from the masculine perspective. Evil, sin, suffering were brought into the world by the feminine (Eve, Pandora).The Gnostics tried to rescue Eve from that curses, but only replaced her with Sophia, who is responsible for bringing trouble into the world. Jung’s wording in the application [passage] is a reminder of the feminine as negative, while the masculine is described as uplifting/inspiring. No matter how many ways we elaborate, explain, qualify, we cannot escape the fact that even the language itself is androcentric, and subtle, because it can all be made to sound so very reasonable. And my rage, instead of being seen as legitimate, can be dismissed as simply an expression of a mood state/mood disorder – the anima/feminine aspect acting out. And yes, my initial reaction to the wording (Jung’s and Wilhelm’s) was rage. The millennia of patriarchal/androcentric attitude have breathed life into the words/concepts and have become living “truths”…
I am sympathetic to the objections of inherent sexism, patriarchy, and prejudice in the passage and more broadly in Jungian theory. Not to in any way diminish the objections raised, but to corroborate and affirm them , let me say these objections and problems with Jungian theory have a number of precedents by prominent Jungian scholars, to mention just two here who have raised these issues: Polly-Young Eisendrath and Andrew Samuels.
As a a general opening statement I think the most honest and respectful response is a simple concession to the objection.
Let us take this side by side comparison:
“The animus is in the Heavenly Heart…”, and
“The anima on the other hand, is the force of heaviness and sadness”; it clings to the bodily, fleshy heart. “Moods and impulses to anger” are its effects. “whoever is dull and moody on waking is fettered by the anima.”
Its pretty hard not to interpret that as prejudice. And, in as much as the animus is symbolically masculine and the anima feminine in Taoism and Jungian psychology, the prejudice has gender correspondence. It seemingly applies to men and women and their respective differences.
Okay so far so good…or if not “good” exactly, at least we are on solid ground. But as it so often is with these matters, the greater we focus on the matter, the more complex and less clear it becomes.
Serendipitously, whilst I was drafting this response, I had the opportunity to speak with a Jungian alchemist, a living master, on the topic of nothing other than the anima and animus!
He told me three things which all seem relevant and worth repeating given the context of our discussion.
Firstly, he said that Jung makes the point that the alchemists were for the most part, not exclusively, but almost, men. And as such their description of the “feminine principle” is less a description of the objective feminine than it is of the projected “anima”. This immediately tells us two things:
- We can concede the patriarchal prejudice inscribed in the text by virtue of the almost exclusively masculine gender of the authors of the text. In the case of SGF, if the linage we hear is correct then its authorship is exclusively masculine.
- We can find a possible defence for Jungian theory by recognising that the anima whilst symbolically feminine is in fact an image of the feminine held in the unconscious psyche of the masculine, rather than an objective description or characterisation of femininity. Whilst subtle that is a very important distinction. When Jung is speaking of the anima he is speaking of the feminine imago held in the psyche of the masculine.
Beyond the above it is important to recognise that in the post-Jungian movement, among whose ranks I number myself, there is a strong movement away from gender essentialism and linking the anima only to the psyche of men and the animus only to psyche of women.
The above important evolution of this concept in the post-Jungian movement made, let us return to the classical model for a moment.
It is worth noting, that whilst there is arguably a myriad of masculine prejudice tied up in the anima concept, there is also no shortage of idealisation and enchantment. To the extent that the animus – at least in Jungian psychology, is for the most part a poor cousin the anima. Or maybe a better metaphor is to say it is a very plain brother to a larger than life sister – the anima. Whilst that in some sense only confirms the gender prejudice, it also is one which recognise the feminine principle in the form of the anima as a goddess.
Building on the above, let me share two additional short stories told by my enchanting interlocutor this afternoon. Both about the anima in homosexual men, which extends and challenges the stereotypical heteronormative framing of the man’s anima being embodied in the person of his mother or wife (or both).
The first story concerns the well-known Jungian analyst (and expert on the anima as matter of lifelong study and devotion) who also happens to be homosexual. He was once asked about his own view of what exactly the anima was in his life. Without hesitating he said, it the love and relatedness between my partner and me.
The other story also concerns a homosexual Jungian analyst. One who is quite flamboyant. When asked (possibly challenged) during a live lecture as to where he located the anima in his psyche and life, he unhesitatingly answered, “I sir, am the anima!”
I hope that makes the point that in the practice of Jungian psychoanalysis at least, the anima is symbolically but not objectively feminine. And when we talk about her (in hushed tones) we are invoking a psychopomp, not a flesh and blood woman.
End of reply
Whilst the above is far from a conclusive or complete statement on the matter of sexism in the anima-animus model, I do hope it helps to illustrate a few things. Specifically:
- Why there is a legitimate concern in the post-Jungian movement about the sexism of Jung’s original framing of the anima and animus.
- That we can think about and work with the anima (and the animus, although this post focusses on the former) in non-essentialist fashion and more importantly in a way that doesn’t limit access to this intriguing archetype and faculty of soul to a single gender at the expense of the other.
- Illustrates that when we are talking about the anima we are talking about a faculty of soul life, even possibly soul life itself, rather than being limited toa stereotypical and outdated description of the feminine gender.
By way of conclusion, let me say that as challenging as the anima-animus model is in a post-modern, post-binary-gender world, I think it remains immensely valuable and relevant. It is a profound and subtle idea from one of the greatest thinkers in the field of depth psychology and an invaluable tool on the road to consciousness, meaning and individuation. With this in mind, the work being done in the post-Jungian field to reframe the idea within the paradigm of gender- fluidity/plasticity and post-modernity is important and worth pursuing for clinicians, scholars and students of Jungian psychology alike.
Until we speak again,
 In a recent chat with the South African psychoanalyst, Michael Benn, he made the same point with respect to the psychoanalytic ideas of perversion and “the dead mother”. Just how subtle these ideas are and knowing them and understanding them is no simple matter. In my own experience of coming to terms with the conceptual framework of Jungian psychology the journey of understanding is ongoing. I can hear the same idea or concept touted a thousand with the conviction of I have understood everything I can about it. Only to one day hear it in a way I was previously unable to and for a new vista to open up, such that I am left wondering how this new insight was not always obvious to me previously!
 Polly-Young Eisendrath, The Cambridge Companion to Jung, p. 224
 My interlocuter’s name is withheld and her post has been edited to preserve her anonymity.
 Jungian Analyst, Psychologist, professor and author, co-editor with Terence Dawson of The Cambridge Companion to Jung.
 Founder of the post-Jungian movement, professor and author of numerous books challenging classic Jungian discourse, with attention to issues of sexism, racism and anti-Semitism.
 C. G. Jung, The Secret of the Golden Flower. ‘Animus and Anima’, p. 114