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Review of "The Mythological Unconscious"

By Michael Vannoy Adams
Other Press, 2001
Review by Howard Covitz, Ph.D. on Oct 1st 2002
The Mythological Unconscious

Adams’ Mythological Unconscious, a compelling demonstration of his version of the Jungian method of amplification, is genuinely a delight to read. The volume may serve equally well as a casebook for seasoned practitioners as for those who seek an introduction to the use of mythological themes in clinical practice.  The work recommends and presents interpretations of dream and fantasy productions by amplification, i.e., by  a comparative lifting of the manifest content of these productions to archetypal motifs in mythology. An appreciation of homologous structures in these mythic works is, thereafter, utilized in order to augment the essential components of an individual’s productions. In this manner an understanding canonically grows that combines individual and collective (unconscious) threads. The author is careful to explain that the essence of the archetypal is in its typicality (p. 245), though this may well differ from culture to culture. Adams does begins to develop the interesting notion of a cultural unconscious, as he discusses the manner in which members of one culture may deferentially work with someone from another culture (chapter 3). Throughout, Adams counterpoises his method against what he considers the redactive/reductive method of Freudian psychoanalysis. I offer the following thoughts as a neo-Freudian/relational analyst who doesn’t vision himself or his theoretical kin as a vulture “whose wings are dull reality” (Poe: “A Sonnet to Science”). The reader is, therefore, forewarned of a tension that may well precipitate in this cross-theoretical report of Adams’ work and from the reviewer’s personal bias for volumes that more openly invite the reader into a skeptical dialogue leading towards a still-to-be discovered theoretical terminus rather than Adam’s expository style.

I shall limit myself to several concerns, none of which should be taken to weaken my sense that this is an important work for the broad spectrum of clinicians and for sentient lay-folk interested in such matters.

In 1961, a panel was convened at the meeting of the International Psychoanalytic to discuss the curative aspects of psychotherapeutic process (IJPA, 1962). Let it be said that neither that group of respected analysts nor any of the many panels that have since gathered to discuss the how of psycho therapeutics has comfortably settled on a list of necessary and sufficient conditions of the talking cure; nor have they agreed on how such elements commingle to produce substantive alterations in the lives of those who occasion analysts’ offices. This is rendered all the more complicated by the shyness demonstrated by the profession’s unwillingness to tackle a definition for an equally illusive notion, that of health. (Perhaps, this would be too much to expect as our notions of health may well differ as we cross invisible cultural boundaries; in the end, the how of analysis may remain, forever, an open question.)

This having been said, there do appear to be two prominent explanations of the how of psychoanalysis bandied about and a third one about which we clinicians prefer not to think. The first views as essential the exhumation and reintegration of sequestered unconscious material into the sectors of mind that are accessible to conscious deliberation and change. A second view, similar to Alexander’s early model for corrective emotional experience (Alexander, 1961), sees cure emanating from novel relational capacities that the analysand develops within the therapeutic dyad. The analyst and patient co-create a new relationship that removes the patient (maybe both) from his or her (or their) role-locks that previously rendered the acting out and formation of symptoms more gratifying than the everyday pain of relating. A third, almost unspeakable view presents the analyst as a charismatic whose dazzling powers of exegesis woo the patient into relinquishing symptoms in hopes of sharing some of those analytic powers. I shall leave it to critics of analysis to expostulate about this third possibility and shall briefly focus on the first two. 

With reference to both of the first two models, it is posited that the therapist’s ability to be on-target with interpretations is crucial to success in the therapeutic endeavor. In the first instance, the homology of the interpretation with the patient’s unconscious process is the proximal agent of change, as it renders the sequestered process open to modification in the fresh air of conscious thought. But even according to the second model, the failure to offer resonant interpretations is likely to set off a repetition of a sense of being misunderstood that can only bolster the analysand’s withdrawal into the world of symptoms. In both instances, that is, this homology of material and corresponding interpretation is at least necessary, if not sufficient, for the success of the process. 

It behooves analysts of all schools, therefore, to attend to demonstrations of this interpretive resonance. Adams does present clinical anecdotes suggesting this resonance in his use of amplification, but more of the evidence in support of his technique is by way of the imprimatur of this or that analyst (Hillman, Jung, Lopez-Pedraza, and others). And while Adams’ work should not be faulted on this basis (as the propensity to cite authorities is rife in the world of theoretical metapsychology and analysis), the work would have benefited significantly from additional data on the manner in and by which these mythical amplifications resonated in the material that followed its use in each reported case.   

If I experienced any significant discomfort in the reading of this work, however, it was in the manner by which Adams takes on many of the authors that he cites. On different occasions Bion, Fordham, Freud, Hillman and others are cited and then their conclusions are dismissed ... if not out of hand, then still and all cavalierly. This is perhaps most obvious in his lengthy treatment of the paleontological considerations of Adrienne Mayor (pp. 312-355). Adams took umbrage to her suggestion that the griffin may well have been symbolically appropriated from prehistoric sightings of the fossil-remains of protoceratops and may not be, strictly speaking, a mythic creation of the inner mind of anthropos. Adams’ arguments against Mayor’s position — even if well thought out — seemed irrelevant to his argument about the utility of mythological amplification and, in that sense, gratuitous. Introducing a hundred-plus word sentence (p. 351), Adams suggests that, had she followed the path that he recommends, “she might have developed ... more respect for the imagination.” 

This was, perhaps, all the more disturbing to this reader as it ran counter to the holistic manner of interpretation that Adams supports in this work and that I, too, embrace. The author artfully demonstrates throughout how, through the process of amplification that he recommends, disavowed non-ego-images (akin to ego-dystonic representations, in Freudian language) may be integrated into the mainstream of the mind’s ego-images (ego-syntonic representations). When the dream-director casts someone other than the dreamer in a given role, we are lead to wonder if this other role does not, in fact, represent a characteristic of the dreamer with which the dreamer feels discomfort.  Analysis, independent of the model of healing that dominates one’s thinking, is thought to heal, at least in part, by permitting the analysand an opportunity for making peace with these shadow elements of the personality that have been driven out of awareness.  I thought to myself: couldn’t Mayor’s gambit and others’ views, as well, profitably be seen by Adams as his own disavowed theoretical self-images ... residues of a Cartesian Dubito surrounding his own metatheories.

I found myself, furthermore, fascinating about whether it might not be profitable for  theoreticians in the social sciences, in general, to conceptualize disavowed theories as akin to non-ego-images in Adams’ model. One might, then, try on for size (in a primus inter pares spirit) models that don’t necessarily comport with one’s own views. Instead of following this tack, however, Adams seemed consistently committed to demonstrating the correctness a singular position and this did detract from the work … at least for this skeptical reader.

I shall move towards closing with a discussion of an interesting detour that Adams takes, nearing the end of his own work, into the dreams that Joseph presents to his brothers (Genesis 37).  As an aside, Adams, who consistently argues that it is contrary to his method to introduce new elements into what he repeatedly calls the “essential” ingredients of a dream or fantasy, in fact does so, himself. He concludes (p. 422), contrary to the text (Genesis 37:26-28) that it was the brothers who sold Joseph. It was, textually, the Midianites who are reported to have sold him to a band of Ishmaelites who, thereafter, sold him to Potifar, a captain to Pharaoh (even if it is so that the brothers had, indeed, intended sell him, themselves).  

What I had previously found so striking about these dreams were the choreographic characteristics that are shared by Joseph’s dreams and that may be relevant to the mode of contemporary dialogue in the social sciences and psychoanalysis, as well:

    And he said to them: Please, listen up to this dream which I have
    dreamt. And behold we were gathering sheaves  in the midst of the field
    and behold my sheaf stood up and was erect and behold your sheaves
    arose and bowed to my sheaf. (Genesis 37:6-7)

    And behold I dreamt still another dream and behold the sun and the
    moon and eleven stars were bowing to me. (Genesis 37:9)


It occurred to me (Covitz, 1982, 1997) that in both dreams, this irksome adolescent placed himself at the center of a relational system (agrarian or cosmological), disallowing any commerce between the dream’s more or less faceless dancers; all communication was to go on in these fantastic images between Joseph and a single other and the others might not engage in any joint activity that might exclude him. Secondly, it struck me that by so doing, all others were to remain more or less indistinguishable; all were to surround him admiringly and worship him but none were to be accorded internal lives of their own that would appear as difference in the dreams (object-object differentiation, in more Freudian terms).

There is, I would suggest, an occupational hazard for the psycho-theoretician. This danger is resident in a belief that any one of our proffered theories is beyond the fray of the ongoing conversation in which we all partake, a conversation that centers on the investigation of what it means to be an aware-of-itself member of this Clan Anthropos.

Michael Adams’ Mythical Unconscious contributed greatly to my own understanding of what it means to be human. His myth-making model and use of mythical amplification offer the reader an opportunity to witness the potential uses ... for myths about griffins, lions and flying red horses. It opened a window through which unicorns, minotaurs and pegasus might be visioned. This reader wishes only that it had been done more in an additive spirit in which a commingling of the multiplicity of contemporary views of the psyche was more prominent and in which an invitation for a dialogic playfulness took precedence over the demonstration of the correctness of a singular viewpoint.



Alexander, F.  (1961). The Scope of Psychoanalysis.  New York: Basic Books.
Covitz, H. (1982). Joseph and his narcissistic dreams. The Observer, Philadelphia School of Psychoanalysis, pp. 16-20. Philadelphia.
Covitz , H. (1998).  OEdipal Paradigms in Collision. Peter Lang Publishers, New York.

© 2002 Howard Covitz

Howard Covitz, Ph.D., was long-time Director of and Training and Supervising Analyst at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapies (Bryn Mawr, PA). His trek to these roles encompassed interests in Religious and Secular Education and Administration, and the teaching of Statistics and Mathematics (Temple & Villanova Universities). He trained psychoanalytically at the Psychoanalytic Studies Institute (Philadelphia). He practices and lives with his wife in Melrose Park (PA) — from whence they travel to visit their children who, with their spouses, have acted as able and persistent collocutors in his writings.

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