Monday, February 25, 2013

Carl Jung


I have been drawn to Carl Jung for years because of his work with dream analysis, archetypes, literature, and philosophy.  In the last year of studying religions of the world, he has become even more valuable.  So, when I was browsing one of my favorite bookstores up in the Santa Barbara region of California, Chaucer’s Books, I stumbled across a recent publication of Jung’s The Red Book (Liber Novus):  A Reader’s Edition (Norton, 2009).  However, I had no sooner come home on that rainy evening and curled up on my couch than I found I needed some more background reading of Jung to fully understand the placement of The Red Book within the Jungian bibliography.  Specifically, I had used Jung’s work as background to my studying and teaching of literature.  For a few years now, I have had his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (the Vintage Books edition of 1965) sitting on my shelf.  I had not read it through in its entirety, so I figured before launching into The Red Book, the time was now to absorb Jung’s own words about his life.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections did not start life as memoir, or even autobiography.  Aniela Jaffe, the editor of the book, found herself hired in the summer of 1956 to be the official biographer of Jung with the full cooperation of the subject and his family.  Jung had a well-known abhorrence for personal revelations and was not keen on having someone delve into his life.  He took his time giving permission for Jaffe to come inside his inner circle.  She says Jung “allotted to me an entire afternoon once a week for our work together.”  For someone as influential as Jung, then in his 80s, one afternoon would hardly suffice.  However, the good doctor warmed to the task, and soon began writing a lot of material himself.  Thus, Memories, Dreams, Reflections makes the transition from biography to memoir.

Throughout his life, Jung struggled with writing.  “A book of mine is always a matter of fate,” he says in Jaffe’s Introduction.  “There is something unpredictable about the process of writing, and I cannot prescribe for myself any predetermined course.  Thus this ‘autobiography’ is now taking a direction quite different from what I had imagined at the beginning.  It has become a necessity to write down my early memories.  If I neglect to do so for a single day, unpleasant physical symptoms immediately follow.  As soon as I set to work they vanish and my head feels perfectly clear.”

Jung moves gracefully among so many subjects—psychiatry, religion, philosophy, literature, history, and of course anecdotal stories of patients he has treated in the course of his practice.  In this book, Jung attempts to sum up his life as “a story of the self-realization of the unconscious.”  The book is so much more.  In Jung’s view, human beings are mythological creatures, not in the sense of who they are, but in the way they understand the world.  “Myth,” according to Jung, “is more individual and expresses life more precisely than does science.”  He believes that his life—any life—can only be told through story utilizing the tools of literature:  symbolism, theme, narrative.  Psychology is as much a story of the patient as it is the science or pathology of the affliction.  “The life of man…it is so fleeting, so insufficient, that it is literally a miracle that anything can exist and develop at all…When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity.  Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux.”

The book is organized chronologically starting with the first years of his life moving through his schooling and student years.  He includes interesting chapters on his meetings (confrontations?) with Sigmund Freud, and my edition also adds their correspondence in an appendix.  He writes in depth about his travels and goes on to discuss visions and the afterlife, including chapters entitled “Late Thoughts” and “Reflections.”

In school, Jung finds himself bored and largely misunderstood.  “It took up far too much time which I would rather have spent drawing battles and playing with fire.”  He craves solitude and the life of the mind, and this leads early on to his feeling that even at this young age, he is two persons, a duality, of school boy and a full-grown man.  He quite literally believes he is two spirits dwelling within the body of a single entity, and this causes some interesting hallucinations and surreal occurrences.  He confuses the date—writing 1786 instead of 1886—and feels an “inexplicable nostalgia” for a time he should not have known.  He has conflict with his religious father.  “You always want to think,” his father tells him.  “One ought not to think but believe.”  Jung put his faith in experiencing and knowing.  As he progresses as a student, his grades eventually improve.  However, school work still plagues him, but he connects with his Latin teacher, possibly because his own father made him learn Latin from an early age.  So this particular teacher, knowing Jung to be ahead of the class, would send him to the university library to get books and he would “joyfully dip into them while prolonging the walk back as much as possible.”

It is clear that Jung’s first patient is himself.  He studies his intuitive understanding of what others think and feel.  He understands a person before even knowing his name.  Much later, he comes to the realization that humans empathize with one another because of shared mythological experiences, that human beings have a collective consciousness that allows connections to be formed.  This clearly creates the basis for his life’s work.  Along the way, something transforms in the young student, and he develops a ravenous appetite for learning, even pushing through setbacks like being accused, without foundation, of plagiarism.  He becomes a brilliant student, almost in spite of his somewhat narrow-minded teachers.

A major mid-life health crisis leads to Jung’s realization of his destiny.  He comes to understand particular visions he has of his future and people he has encountered.  The doctor who brings him back from the brink of death engenders strong feelings in Jung.  He knows his doctor will die soon and Jung cannot convey the seriousness to the man adequately.  However, Jung is correct, and he is the doctor’s last patient.  Jung writes:  “Something else, too, came to me from my illness.  I might formulate it as an affirmation of things as they are:  an unconditional ‘yes’ to that which is, without subjective protests—acceptance of the conditions of existence as I see them and understand them, acceptance of my own nature, as I happen to be.”  It is a powerful moment in Jung’s life.

Although some might dismiss Jung’s interest in the afterlife and ghosts as a tangent, Jung believes otherwise.  “Parapsychology holds it to be a scientifically valid proof of an afterlife that the dead manifest themselves—either as ghosts, or through a medium—and communicate things which they alone could possibly know…the question remains whether the ghost or the voice is identical with the dead person or is a psychic projection, and whether the things said really derive from the deceased or from knowledge which may be present in the unconscious.”  Interesting ideas and questions, to be sure, and Jung does not discriminate in his inquiry.  He does not dismiss such apparitions as fantasy but seeks to understand them.  He delves further into whether the ghosts might say more about the people who see them.  All of this, I found interesting and enlightening.

Jung’s philosophy of life-long learning has roots in his chosen discipline.  “I also think of the possibility,” he writes, “that through the achievement of an individual a question enters the world, to which he must provide some kind of answer.”  So it is incumbent on us to seek our own answers to existence, and not simply accept the supposed prevailing wisdom of a religion or philosophy, or even a science.  Some things cannot be explained away by science and faith.  “In old age one begins to let memories unroll before the mind’s eye and, musing, to recognize oneself in the inner and outer images of the past,” says Jung.  “This is like a preparation for an existence in the hereafter, just as, in Plato’s view, philosophy is a preparation for death.”

Memories, Dreams, Reflections is essential reading.  It’s very thesis and themes are the understanding of who we are as entities in this existence.  It is not dry science or objectification of the commonplace; it is an exploration of a man’s life leading to a validation of the ephemeral joy of being alive.  Jung argues that we must live—experience and understand—in order to comprehend why we are here and what this all means.  His writing opened up areas for me that I thought were fully explored, and he will influence my teaching of literature and writing going forward.  He revels in the paradox—mythology as truth—and we realize that in this paradox is freedom.  Life goes on after us, with us, within us.  Carl Jung demands that we think and feel our lives, demonstrating the technique for us.  It is in our memories, dreams and reflections that we find our true natures, our destinies, our transcendence.

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