Erich Neumann

"Mystical Man"

Review by Tim Knepper, 2001

Neumann, Erich. “Mystical Man.” In Joseph Campbell (ed.), The Mystic Vision (375-415). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Delivered in 1948 as part of the Eranos Conference (an annual conference, dating back to 1933, that is dedicated to an examination of the cultural evolution of psychological archetypes), Erich Neumann’s “Mystical Man” takes human beings, not mysticism, as its subject matter, posing the following generative question: “To what degree is the mystical a universal human phenomenon and to what degree is man homo mysticus? (375). Neumann associates the mystical with the stages of human development in which consciousness is either not yet or no longer centered around the ego. For example, the mystical is located in the uroboros stage of development, the early psychological stage of original unity, in which the ego has not yet detached itself from the non-ego. This incomplete separation “lives in the psyche of mankind as the archetype of paradisiacal wholeness.” The development toward individuality (or the ego, or consciousness), however, requires detachment from the uroboros stage, which means “descent into the depth of the unconscious, the encounter with the non-ego” (380). This encounter with what Neumann calls the “numinous” constitutes “the ‘other side’ of the development of consciousness and is by nature ‘mystical’” (380). The ego must renounce conscious reality, thereby suspending the polarization of world and self and leaving itself open to “mystical encounter” (of which Neumann provides three examples: (1) a religious, artistic or moral revelation; (2) an individual creative achievement; (3) a personality transformation caused by the obliteration of the dividing line between ego and non-ego). In light of the possibility of “mystical encounters” between the ego and non-ego in humans, Neumann calls the mystical “a fundamental category of human experience” (378), and dubs human beings “homo mysticus” (383).

Although intense religious experience is one possibility of the mystical encounter, Neumann believes that the “creative-mystical experience is by nature opposed to the dominant religion and the dominant conscious contents of the cultural canon” (386). While religion objectifies and worships numena, the “authentic, fundamental experience of the numinous cannot be other than anti-conventional, anti-collective, and anti-dogmatic, for the experience of the numinous is always new” (386). Any time the mystical is experienced in terms of “the archetypal cultural canon,” it is for Neumann “either low-level mysticism or disguised mysticism” (386). Finally, after proclaiming in part one of his essay that “any attempt to understand the experience of mystical man as an expression of a varying relation between ego and self must be grounded in a psychology which takes into account the different phases of the ego and consciousness in their development from the unconscious” (389), Neumann turns to just such a developmental psychology of mysticism in part two. Three phases in the development of the personality are correlated with three distinct mystical encounters between the ego and non-ego. Such a “mysticism of life’s phases” reflects not only “the stages in the development of human consciousness, but also the development of man in his very essence” (413).