Fasnacht, Carl Jung, the Trickster Archetype and Altered States of Consciousness
[Updated 21 February 2016]
I have just spent four wonderful days and nights in the Swiss town of Basel (anglicized as 'Basle,' but I prefer to stick to the original, as do the locals), taking part in the traditional Fasnacht festival. For a general impression, have a look at the first video below. You might then ask: What does a carnival have to do with philosophy? Well, actually much more than you'd think!
As many of you know, my philosophical ideas have been largely influenced by the thought of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, who developed the theory of the Collective Unconscious and the Archetypes. According to Jung, our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are subliminally influenced—even determined—by shared psychic templates he called Archetypes. There is an Archetype that is particularly repressed and dismissed in contemporary culture: that of the Trickster, an anti-intellect figure, entertaining and mischievous at the same time, who reminds us of our connection to a psychic reality more primordial and fundamental than our linear, logical thinking. As I wrote in my little book Meaning in Absurdity, the absence of the Trickster in contemporary culture is at the root of much of our inability to relate harmoniously to the world and ourselves.
And this is where Fasnacht comes in. The festival brings out some of our deepest, most repressed psychological realities, including the Trickster Archetype. Indeed, the Fasnacht figure of the Waggis is a textbook incarnation of the Trickster. See the video below. As such, the festival is of great psychological and philosophical significance. I've come to Fasnacht this year to experience the expression of these subliminal but powerful psychological realities myself. No festival does it better, perhaps because the Swiss are, for 362 days of the year, the epitome of intellectual order and correctness. Therefore, during the three days of Fasnacht, following a natural compensatory instinct, they let out their repressed Archetypes with a purity and intensity unseen anywhere else. Jung himself has lived and studied in Basel, having experienced Fasnacht firsthand. The festival has more than likely influenced his thinking and inspired his later elaboration of the theory of Archetypes.
There is an old documentary that talks extensively about this relationship between Fasnacht, Jungian psychology and the obfuscated psyche:
Perhaps even more significantly, during Fasnacht the people of Basel give a whole new meaning to the words 'chaos' and 'cacophony.' There are perhaps hundreds of bands—such as Cliques and Gugge—and smaller musical groups going around town at the same time, each following their own unplanned, impromptu route, crossing each other, blocking each other, squeezing past each other, jamming, tying and untying traffic knots. Somehow, it all resolves itself spontaneously. Each band plays its own songs. Often they converge at some intersection, side by side, each sticking to its own rhythm with renewed determination. The resulting chaos and cacophony are impossible to describe.
People spend all evening following different bands. If a band passes by playing a song one likes, one follows behind it... until another band comes along that one likes better, so one switches to it instead. So you get myriad processions of bands and people marching behind them, intermingling, morphing and splitting spontaneously, with no central organization whatsoever. All properties of the system are emergent.
The psychological effect of this dynamic is fascinating: the cacophony of sounds, the slightly dissonant music the bands play, the spontaneity of the composition and route of each procession, the complete lack of structure, plus the repetitive physical exercise of marching aimlessly are all ego-dystonic, putting you in a subtle kind of trance. You have to be there to really know what I mean. After about a half hour taking part in this, thoughts subside and a more primordial, spontaneous mode of being kicks in. I doubt the people behind Fasnacht are self-reflectively aware of what they are doing; I think the whole thing is rather instinctive. But they do it wonderfully and effectively nonetheless. And the result is significant both psychologically and philosophically, as those familiar with my work will recognize.
I am grateful to the Waggis, the Gugge, the Cliques and the people of Basel for the truly wonderful time I've had there. The profoundly mythical ethos of the festival has filled me with inspiration for promoting my upcoming book More Than Allegory, in which I elaborate on the truth-value of myths such as the Archetypal templates underlying Fasnacht.