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‘Lilac Wine’ and the Archetypal Journey: Instinct, Desire, and the Power of Song

Although Jung gave dozens of sometimes conflicting definitions of the word “archetype” in his various pronouncements and writings (a “primordial image, a mnemonic deposit, an imprint or engram), one clear through-line remains. The archetype is always some sort of structuring principle that lies outside of everyday consciousness and, when it emerges suddenly, it exceeds all subjective expectations. Running into such an archaic reality, Jung suggested is like encountering a 2000-year-old Corinthian column on a modern street corner —the last thing we expect to see, yet disturbingly familiar in some way.

“Just a moment ago we were given over to the noisy ephemeral life of the present, when something very far away and strange appears to us … on this very spot … two thousand years ago … similar passions moved mankind, and someone like us was likewise convinced of the uniqueness of their experience.”

An illuminating connection can be drawn between instinct and archetype. “Instincts,” wrote Jung in 1919, are typical modes of action”, while “archetypes are typical modes of apprehension”. Instinct and archetype in other words “determine one another”. The instinct drives the behaviour pattern, while the archetype apprehends the environmental and/or physiological conditions under which the instinctual behaviour is an appropriate response. No instinctual behaviour will be initiated unless its archetype “apprehends” the necessary conditions and takes hold of us.

According to his favourite example, every human archetype functions like those primitive and unvarying mechanisms that drive the yucca moth and leaf-cutter ant to perform highly complicated activities to fertilize their eggs and provide for their survival. Because the adult sexual forms of these insects are so short lived, they never have a chance to observe and learn their mating behaviour from others before they have to carry it out; they are born with the instinctive drives and choreography for behaving in this way.

Archetypes then seem to shape innate tendencies that predate all learning. The archetype, as with our insect kin, suggests an innate releasing mechanism which functions in place of learning. While an instinct “drives” the insect to reproduce, a closely related archetype enables them to “recognize” the appropriate season and the specific plants necessary for depositing eggs and feeding future larvae. Like us, they carry out such behaviour patterns with invariable precision, but with nothing like what we would call “consciousness”, as far as we can tell.

Another aspect of the instinct/archetype relation Jung proposed in 1919 is based on this higher complexity, where the archetype “might suitably be described as the instinct’s perception of itself or as the self-portrait of the instinct”. This perhaps also provides a useful link from instinct to more elaborate manifestations like personality. The reproductive archetype of the yucca moth apprehends the flowering yucca plants as “affording” it the opportunity and necessity of reproducing. It sees, smells, and feels the blossoming plant as an archetypal image. This is the trigger that fires the instinctual pattern. An archetypal image gives the instinct direction just as a personality type provides a conduit for whichever instinct is most dominant in us at any given time (sexual, social, or self-preserving).

This also helps to explain why it is not only our “behaviour patterns,” but also our dreams, fantasies, illusions, hallucinations, art work, religion which are all structured by the archetypes. Although no part of our experience is free of such structuring, and so subtly that we rarely notice it, there are also times when we undergo disturbing changes in our awareness due to a new archetype interrupting our everyday waking lives. A specific emotional charge may enthuse us, disorient us, or put us “under a spell.” We may find ourselves hyper-alert, dreamy, overwrought, or in some other “altered” state of consciousness.

The song “Lilac Wine” captures the essence of archetypes through its exploration of the transformative experience and the profound emotional depths elicited by these reliqaries of Eros. The lilac, a flower associated with beauty, nostalgia, and spiritual awakening, becomes a symbol imbued with archetypal significance. The rich, velvety tones of the wine represent the elixir of life, carrying the power to transport the listener to an altered state of consciousness.

“I lost myself on a cool, damp night,” sings Nina Simone, and later Jeff Buckley:

I gave myself in that misty light
Was hypnotized by a strange delight
Under a lilac tree
I made wine from the lilac tree
Put my heart in its recipe
Makes me see what I want to see
And be what I want to be.

The song captures part of the essence of archetypes through its exploration of transformative experiences and the emotional depths elicited. The lilac, a flower associated with beauty, nostalgia, and spiritual awakening becomes a symbol imbued with archetypal significance. The rich, velvety tones of the wine represent the elixir of life or love, carrying the power to transport singer and listener to an altered state of consciousness, where the lost beloved is once more present

Listen to me, I cannot see clearly
Isn’t that she coming to me? Nearly, here…

The lyrics of “Lilac Wine” guide the listener through an intimate journey of love and longing, a narrative so powerful that it echoes through all our shared human experience. The longing for a lost love, the yearning for transformation, the heady intoxication of nostalgia and desire – these are universal themes that speak to our deepest instincts and trigger profound, archetypal responses. The song calls forth images and emotions buried deep within the collective unconscious, bypassing our logical minds to reach a place of raw, primal understanding.

Lilac wine remains such an enchanting song because it digs deep into our archetypal substrate, just like the “stream” of free-association that emerges in therapy, and maybe even the one that carried Jeff Buckley away to his early demise. As a result of hormone and autonomic nervous system involvement, here perhaps amplified by the wine, the archetypes is experienced as powerfully emotional, even numinous even though in itself, represents something akin to the tokens used in Natural Language Processing which render the inorganic intelligence of our AI helpers,  a kind of “empty program” that needs life-experience (a prompt) to “fill” it. This filling process “wires” the brain according to set and setting, resulting as an emergence into the “archetypal,” in the sense of “mythic” images and expectations. 

Archetypes also appear to be “nested” within one another. The limbic interaction of mother and infant is an example of an ancient and primitive form of the archetype which resurfaces in Lilac Wine’s romantic bond. In “Lilac Wine,” the romantic bond between the speaker and their lost beloved can be seen as a nested archetype within this primal mother-infant bond. The speaker’s intense longing, their desire to be united with the loved one, and the suggested transformative power of love echo the dependency, unconditional love, and nurturing aspects of the mother-infant archetype.

The song’s protagonist seems to yearn for a return to an almost womb-like state of unity and bliss, as symbolized by the intoxicating effect of their wine. In this way, the romantic bond in the song becomes its own nested archetype, embodying the elements of the primal mother-infant bond in a new context.

Moreover, the universal themes of the song – love, longing, transformation – resonate so deeply with us because they connect with these nested archetypes within us. 

Simone, Buckley and other artists who covered this song, have subtly nuanced interpretations, reflecting their unique artistic personalities, yet the archetypal thread woven into the narrative remains consistent and compelling. These variations in performance further reinforce the power of the archetypal narrative, demonstrating how each individual instinctively connects to and reshapes the shared narrative in their own image.

This is the mystery and magic of archetypes: that they seem to contain, even in their nine permutations, multitudes, transcending individual experience to tap into a collective wellspring of emotion and understanding. Despite our differences, the same instinctive patterns of behaviour, the same primordial passions, appear to move us all.

In “Lilac Wine,” these instincts and passions are transmuted into art, into a universal language of love and longing that resonates deeply within our souls. When we listen to the song, we are not just hearing the melody, the words, the artist’s unique interpretation – we are encountering the archetypal narrative of human desire and longing, awakening the same passions that have moved mankind for thousands of years. And in that moment, we are transported, like the singer, to a place of heightened awareness, of altered consciousness, where the world as we know it is reimagined and transformed through the prism of our deepest, most primal instincts.