Carl Jung


The other day I picked up a copy of Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections for the first time in years, looking for a quote that I wanted to use in something else I intended to write. I began reading, and couldn’t stop very quickly, feeling that what I was reading was very wise. This was a bit surprising to me, since I’ve read things since I first read that book which  put Jung in a very different light. So I picked up Richard Noll’s Aryan Christ, and reread that as a corrective.

Noll also encountered Memories, Dreams, Reflections in his teens, as I did, and found it a very powerful book. So did I. For the most part it’s very well-written, and some parts of the story it tells are startling. Noll says that Jung wrote the first draft of the first three chapters of the book, and one of the last chapters. The rest was put together by Aniela Jaffe with editorial help (Noll says “copious”), and really amounts to a hagiography (biography of a saint or saintly person) rather than anything like a complete biography.

According to Noll this was partly Jung’s doing, as he carefully constructed masks throughout his life to conceal aspects he thought others would be put off by, and partly done by Jaffe and the other editors. They didn’t want to include anything that might reflect badly on him, even though there were some things he did want to include.

The first three chapters of the book fascinate because they’re startling. Jung talks about many of his dreams and visions throughout his life, but some of the most surprising are from his early life. One of these, at a time when he was only about 5 or 6, according to him, was a vision of an underground room which he went into and found a gtigantic phallus on a throne. He says he was too young to know what it was, but immediately understood that it was a secret not to be mentioned to anyone else. You’d think this was a vision more suited to Freud, though sexuality was also important in Jung’s life.

The second vision was one of God sitting on a throne, then shifted to a cathedral. As it did so, Jung became conscious of a feeling that if he thought further about this he would be guilty of a sin, and be damned forever, so he tried to avoid thinking about it. He says he tried for three days, then reasoned that seeing this vision must be something God wanted him to do, that he hadn’t asked for the vision, and that it was analagous to the story of Adam and Eve, who disobeyed God before they had enough experience to understand any possible consequences. So Jung let the vision come, and saw a gigantic turd fall on the cathedral and destroy it. His explanation of this was that it was a test by God, similar to tests undergone by Abraham and Job, because he felt blissful after the vision, and interpreted that as God’s grace. At least one author has pointed out that the vision might have expressed his hostility to Christianity, of which Jung had a closeup view  since not only his father, but 8 of his uncles were ministers. Later in the book he says that he listened to their religious discussions, and never felt any of them knew anything about the mystery of the underground phallus or God’s grace. When it came time for him to be confirmed, he says that the bread was a bit stale, the wine was sour, and nothing happened, though he had desperately hoped something would. From that point he was disillusioned with Christianity.

He also mentiones feeling that he was both a Swiss boy growing up in Basel, and an elderly important man living in the 18th century. These are experiences most people don’t seem to have.

One episode of his life that is mentioned in his so-called autobiography, but all the details not given,  is his interest in spiritualism. This took place during his teens, when he gathered with several girls more or less his own age for seances. One of them was his cousin, several years younger than him. Grownups were uncertain about what was going on, and put a stop to it for several years, but then Jung started it again, again with his cousin. Gradually, however, he began to feel that what seemed to be happening wasn’t real: he felt that his cousin was consciously inserting things into what the spirits seemed to be saying because she was interested in him and wanted his attention. The seances stopped, and a couple of years later he wrote a thesis about what had happened, characterizing his cousin as an “hysteric”. Although the names were disguised, people in Basel, where both had grown up, immediately recognized what and who he was writing about. His cousin had been seeing someone, and marriage had been a possibility: the thesis put an end to that, and she died of tuberculosis at an early age.

In his book, Jung says that his choise of psychiatry as a career was happenstance. He was interested in science, but also in the spirit, and realized that psychiatry was the field in which the physical and spiritual “collided”, as he put it. He says that beginning to read Kraft-Ebbing was his turning-point. He found a sentence saying that mental illness was a “disease of the personality”, and felt a tremendous excitement. He says that he had intended to specialize in internal medicine, but this showed him a field in which he could unite both his primary interests.

So after graduating from university he entered the Burgholzli mental hospital in Zurich, and began to try to understand the field he had chosen. He studied hard, as he felt lost for some time, and gradually began to make some progress in understanding his patients. He said that it was necessary to discard all preconceptions and listen to what the patient was trying to communicate, or trying to hide, trying to understand his or her own “language”. He had some notable successes this way, and began to become known in his field.

Perhaps the most famous relationship in the early psychoanalytic movement was Jung’s with Freud. Jung says that Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was very important to him in understanding how to treat his patients, and he found it necessary to defend Freud when others tried to disparage him. Eventually this led to a friendship between the two of them, and Jung became very important in Freud’s movement.

At the same time this was going on, Jung was being influenced by others. Otto Gross was a son of a famous father (who had largely introduced scientific criminology to the German-speaking world) who was also brilliant, and had become extre,e;u omterested om psychoanalysis. He was also a drug addict, of cocaine and heroin, and a “polygamist”, feeling that sexual repression was evil, and that one shouldn’t say no to one’s sexual desires. Because of his addiction he was being treated in the Burgholzli by Jung, until he managed to escape, and, during the analysis Jung was trying to perform with him, had influenced Jung in the direction of polygamy. Jung had previously treated a young Russian woman named Sabina Spielrein, whom he had helped, and who had fallen in love with him. He had rejected her, but after his time with Gross, decided he wanted a relationship with her. She became his mistress, and being very intelligent, had come up with interesting psychological ideas which Jung used, usually without crediting her.

Although Jung’s relationship with Freud seems at first to have been valuable to both, it eventually devleloped tensions. Jung says it was because of Freud’s insistence that sexuality was the basis of all psychiatric problems, while Jung felt there were other issues comparably important. Jung says he accepted Freud’s authority for some time because Freud was older and more experienced, but in Memories, Dreams, Reflections he manages to sound superior to Freud. He had begun to see things psychology differently, and wrote Transformations and Symbols of the Libido in 1912, which finally broke their friendship. In the very next year he had an experience, not mentioned in his autobiography, which led him to believe that he was a religious prophet.

He had been using a sort of spiritualist technique that he later called “Active Imagination”. In this episode he found himself falling and reached what he realized was the underworld, where he met an old man, a young girl who was blind, and a snake. The old man identified himself as Elijah, and the young girl as Salome. The implication was that these were the biblical figures. In the course of this, the girl told Jung that he was Christ, which he said he immediately denied. At that point the snake wrapped itself around him, up to his chest, he began sweating, and then relaized he was in the physical position of Christ on the cross. He then felt his face changing to that of a lion, and at the same time Salome was cured and able to see again. A pretty strange vision, and not easy to intepret, but Jung took it as a sort of deification, legitimizing him as a religious prophet. That wasn’t something he was ready to say to very many people, but that experience inaugurated a period in which he was close to a nervous breakdown, but also came up with most of his own original ideas. These included his theories of human types, the collective unconsicous and the “gods” that ruled it, which he later called archetypes. These are at least somewhat familiar to most people, if not easy to understand. Jung subsequently became a famous figure worldwide, and his “autobiography” probably cemented that fame. But did it make him a better psychiatrist?

Noll includes several cases of people who worked with Jung and didn’t seem to profit a lot. One was an American woman related a one of the most prominent American psychiatrists of the time, who became upset when he heard how Jung was treating her. The record is ambigouous. Maybe she did profit from her treatment, but it’s not clear that she did.

Another American woman, very wealthy, was treated by Jung for agoraphobia, an inability to leave home and be around other people. She became fascinated with Jung and psychoanalyisis, gave him money, helped publicize his work, and even practiced pyschoanalysis herself. She was never able to cure her problem of agoraphobia, though, and in the years she stayed in Zurich to be treated her marriage broke up, and she ended her life some years later in poverty.

One turn that Jung’s practice seems to have taken at this point was to demand that his patients follow his example in eliciting visions and expressing them in writing or drawing as he did. That seems different from his previous attitude of trying to find the patient’s own language. Noll recounts a story from the 1930s in which Jung’s wife told him that he was never interested in his patients unless they exhibited something to do with the collective unconscious, at which point, according to Noll, Jung shut up.

The problem with the idea of the collective unconscious, as valid as that idea may be, is that what Noll calls “cryptomnesia” may affect it. Things one has been previously exposed to may surface in the sort of visions Jung had, and be taken for something new, when they’re not. Noll points out that Jung was very well-read in mythology, and the Lion-headed god which he supposedly became was not something he had never heard of. He apparently wasn’t above lying about that sort of thing either, when there was a question of whether someone had been previously exposed to an idea or image. This makes the concept of the collective unconscious questionable. I’m inclined to think there is such a thing, but Jung was unable to prove its existence, and apparently was aware that he hadn’t. Nonetheless his visionary experiences seem to have been very rich, and to have meaning for others. Jung was a charismatic man, and his autobiography seems to say that he felt he had accomplished something great. I think he had accomplished something, but that whatever it was wasn’t quite what he thought or claimed.

He was trying to reinvigorate religion, and this led him away from Christianity and into pagainism. To understand this we have to understand an important tendency beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Germans became particularly nationalistic (especially after Napoleon’s defeat), and incorporated theories of race into that nationalism. We may forget that until the later 19th century Germany was not united, but was dozens of different states, small and large. Many of these were incorporated into one state by Prussia in 1870, something that a lot of people had been hoping for a long time.

Part of German nationalism was the idea of the Aryan race as being different from others, which went with the idea that, on the one hand Jesus had been Aryan, and on the other hand that Christianity wasn’t a suitable religion for Aryans–or Europeans in general. Some thought that Jesus’s father had actually been a German Roman Centurion who had been stationed in Judea. Others considered the Semitic race to be older than the Aryans, and urbanized in a way Europeans weren’t. This sounds impartial, but it wasn’t too distant from the anti-Semitism that had exsited in Europe for most of the previous 2,000 years. And after the Jewish attempt to assimilate in the 18th century, anti-Semitism was reactivated in the 19th century. The composer Richard Wagner, politicians in Austria and the Dreyfus case in France were all prominent in this process. Many people hoped for a German messiah. Jung nominated himself for the position, but it was taken by Adolph Hitler. Hitler’s legacy makes it difficult to understand the background of Jung’s beliefs, and to discern anything positive in them.

The dissatisfaction with Christianity was fairly widespread, because it seemed to many to be ritual without any substance. Jung, among others, wanted to make religion alive again. There are still people who feel that way, and often reject traditional Christianity, while traditional Christians have, in some cases, gotten more extreme. Aleister Crowley and George Gurdjieff were two almost exact contemporaries of Jung with very similar messages. Crowley was a practitioner of ritual magic, and never as popular as Jung. He was seen as being disreputable, and often was. He too rejected Christianity. Gurdjieff was undeniably Christian, but had little use for organized religion. All three taught individual transformation, with limited success. Jung became probably the most popular of the three, though all have retained some influence since their deaths.

Jung said of his particularly visionary period during the First World War when he came very close to a nervous breakdown trying to integrate what he was experiencing, that it was necessary to treat his visions ethically, that they weren’t just for him, but for the rest of the human race too. Unfortunately, he was less than ethical in other areas of his life, from his treatment of his spiritualist relative to his treatment of his patient and mistress, Sabina Spielrein, to his treatment of Freud, and including at least some of his subsequent patients. Noll also points out that Antonia Wolff, who became Jung’s mistress at the beginning of his visionary period and evidently collaborated with him in his theorizing, as well as helping him retain his psychological balance, was important to him in a way his wife couldn’t be. His wife, though very intelligent herself, found it difficult to follow Jung’s theorizing, and also had five children to take care of. Noll says that at best she accepted Jung’s “polygamous” activities. She wasn’t consulted about them.

There seems to be little doubt that Jung experienced things most people don’t, but that doesn’t, in itself, make him a good man. Like many others, he was sometimes good and sometimes not so good. His experiences may have made him good in some respects, but they didn’t make him absolutely moral, as far as people lacking such experiences can judge. Richard Noll’s book illuminates some previously unseen corners of Jung’s life, but doesn’t give any final judgement on the man. His autobiography remains powerful, but as Noll points out, must be taken with a grain or more of salt.



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