William Styron's Nat Turner as an Archetypal Hero

Article excerpt

John Lang has convincingly argued that the interlocking alpha and omega emblem which appears on a separate page before the "Author's Note" in the first edition of William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner--and which is explicitly named in the final words of the novel--signals that Nat Turner's "spiritual rebirth depends upon his new understanding of the person of Jesus, `Him whose presence' Nat had either forgotten or never known" (Lang 499,503; Styron 428). This interpretation is consistent with Styron's positive assessment of Christian humanism, Christian pacifism, and Christian redemption (cf. Styron, "Hell 111; "Death" 128, 136; Coltrane 885-86).

But the alpha and omega symbol also functions simultaneously as an archetypal symbol. Behind Styron's Nat Turner's quest for personal identity and racial justice is the archetypal quest of the hero, with multiple philosophical and psychological implications. Styron has assimilated Nat Turner to the archetypal paradigm described by Erich Neumann in The Origins and History of Consciousness. (1) His Nat Turner is a black Everyman who "falls" into "consciousness" and embarks on a misbegotten quest for a "human" identity transcending race. This is not to say that Styron used Neumann as a source; rather, Neumann's work illuminates some of the patterns in Styron's novel heretofore overlooked.

According to Neumann, the alpha and omega symbol is one of many archetypal symbols for Original Perfection or Original Unity (Neumann 10). Others include the circle, the sphere, the egg, the rotundum, the mandala, and the uroboros. The uroboros is the ancient Egyptian symbol for a circular snake eating its own tail; its analogues are the "Heavenly Serpent" and the "primal dragon" or Leviathan (Neumann 8-11; 37). The uroboros (and kindred symbols of the round) represents "the unmanifest godhead" (10). It connotes "wholeness, unity, non-differentiation, and the absence of opposites" (11). "Self-contained," "self-begetting," "timeless," "eternal," and "spaceless"--the uroboros is "a closed circuit"; it is the "`wheel' that rolls of itself," "the great whirling wheel of life," and the "ring of life and death" (Neumann 6-10, 23). It is also "the ocean of the unborn" (12) and "the womb of the world" (14), the place of "mythological origination" and "finality," and of "transfiguration" and "illumination" (37). The uroboros is an ambiguous, monistic symbol: "It slays, weds, and impregnates itself. It is man and woman, begetting and conceiving, devouring and giving birth, active and passive, above and below at once" (Neumann 10).

Neumann uses the uroboros--whose analogue is the Christian Alpha and Omega--to signify psychic wholeness, or "the roundedness of the psyche." The ego passes through several stages as it differentiates itself from the Primal Unity of the uroboros. In the beginning is a "beatific uroboric state of autarchy, perfection, and absolute self-sufficiency." Existence in the womb-like uroboros is "unconscious" and is characterized by "the absence of suffering." "Everything is supplied of its own accord"; "there is no need of the slightest exertion, not even an instinctive reaction, let alone a regulating ego consciousness" (33). Alas, men and women are predestined to "fall" into consciousness. The dawn of consciousness is often represented as the coming of light, for "Only in the light of consciousness can man know." "With the `coming of consciousness' (i.e., the growth of the ego) comes the splintering of this primal symbol of Unity. This `act of cognition' or `conscious discrimination' sunders the world into opposites, for experience of the world is only possible through opposites" (104).

In Neumann's gendered scheme, "consciousness" is masculine, whether the subject is male or female (125, 143-44). Conversely, the unconscious is feminine and is synonymous with "the nonego" (157-58).

   Mother, womb, the pit, and hell are all identical. …