Sunday, May 25, 2003

Jung at Heart

I've been reading Carl Jung, and reading about him and his work, for only about a decade now. In fact I've read very little out of all that exists. His writings and writings about him could easily occupy the remainder of my years. I enjoy the experience of reading him; I enjoy his voice. And of course I learn a great deal.

When the millennium turned there was some mild media attempt to name the most significant figures of the 20th century. Names like Churchill and Einstein were usually at the top. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I firmly believe that if humanity in some civilized condition manages to survive this century, historians of the 22nd century will look back and judge Carl Jung as among the two or three most important figures of the 20th century. Partly because, if our civilization doesn't learn what Jung knew, it's very unlikely to get past this century.

I don't profess to any special insight or authority, and certainly not background, to evaluate his work. Apart from my draft physical, I've never seen a psychologist or psychiatrist as a patient. I've never wanted to be an analyst, and I don't seem to have the knack for dream analysis or insights. I took psychology in college for about a week---I dropped out almost immediately, appalled. Reading the opening chapters of Anthony Stevens' book called Archetypes, I realized why. In the mid-60s academic psychology was in the throes of what Stevens' calls "neobehaviorist fundamentalism." All that was real was observable behavior. Stimulus and response, reward and punishment, humans as rats in the maze. The psyche had literally been taken out of psychology. No wonder I fled for my life.

I read some Freud and R.D. Laing in college and afterwards, some Maslow, May, Erikson, Fromm, Karen Horney,etc.  The closest I got to Jung was reading Robertson Davies' account of a Jungian analysis in his novel The Manticore.  This de-mystified analysis for me.  All I'd known about was Freud, and he seemed too dogmatic and, well, fixated.

Much of this was interesting and intriguing.  But what really hit home was when somehow I glommed onto James Hillman's formidable work in the early 90s. I think it started with a magazine article in which he was quoted, and maybe also by way of Robert Bly and his poetry readings for men (he and Hillman and Michael Meade edited an excellent anthology of poems, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart). I do remember my first conversation about Hillman---it may have been how I heard about his books--- was with a ceramics artist. Artists, he said, especially male artists, and most especially depressed male artists, like Hillman.

I read as much Hillman as I could find. By now I've read almost everything in book form, though one reading is generally just a fly-by, with moments of startling recognition, affirmation or shocking not-what-I-want-to-hear insight . His earlier work in particular referred back to Jung. I was additionally initiated into Jung by Joseph Cambell's interviews with Bill Moyers, and by Chris in the Morning on Northern Exposure, and even Counsellor Troi on The Next Generation, and probably lots more I've forgotten. And so I started reading Jung. I was amazed that I seemed to understand much of it, what I seemed to understand made sense, and I enjoyed reading a good deal of the rest as well. So that kept me reading.

I began with the usual anthologies, such as Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Psyche and Symbol and the Portable Jung. Eventually I got to his Memories, Dreams and Reflections, a kind of soul autobiography,which is one of the most amazing and important books I've ever read.

Over the years I'd buy whatever I found by or about Jung at used bookstores, thrift stores, library sales, etc. I managed to assemble a nice little collection that way. Jung is famous for the women who studied and worked with him, and who had distinguished careers on their own that continued after his death. I have books on Jung by five of them, some now hard to find.

In recent years I've scavenged for volumes in the Princeton/Bollengen series, which is the closest you can get to his collected works in paperback. And I've searched out a few books I'd read about, such as the one I just finished reading, Laurens van der Post's memoir, Jung And the Story of Our Time.

This Vintage paperback from the 70s (which I found on the Internet at a quite reasonable price) is just about the only one available. Even with an ineradicable staleness wafting from its yellowing pages, it was compelling. Van der Post knew Jung for the last 16 years of his life. This book contains recollections and a few anecdotes, but is really van der Post's brief on Jung's importance, to the journey of his own life and for the human prospect.

Van der Post is a fascinating person in his own right: a soldier, traveler and much admired writer and filmmaker. But as a white South African who was repelled by racism, and a soldier dismayed by war, he had a lonely time of it. In this book he writes movingly about Richard Wilhelm, the westerner who re-discovered and translated the I Ching. For this service Wilhelm was generally treated as a madman, and apparently began to wonder if perhaps he was, until Jung took up his cause, collaborated with him, and befriended him. There's a clear sense here that Jung did something similar for van der Post. Just as Jung recognized kindred spirits in Wilhelm and this traveler who spent months each year traveling among tribal peoples in remote areas of Africa, finding his heart of enlightenment, they found in Jung a philosophical paterfamilias, beacon of hope and genius of their times.

Van der Post considers Jung one of the most important religious thinkers of the century, as well as a great healer. He praises Jung's insights in practical terms as well. He finds in Jung's psychological concepts the keys to communication across differences, and ultimately to the end of war. He quotes Anatole France: "Human beings are forever killing each other over words, whereas if they had only understood what the words were trying to say, they would have embraced each other." Van der Post adds, " After Jung's Psychological Types, I am convinced, we no longer have any valid excuse for not realizing that we are all ultimately trying to say the same things and express the same longings in terms of our own unique natures." Together with Jung's theories of the unconscious---of its methods and manifestations, and of the balances necessary between conscious and unconscious-humanity had the tools to match the sophistication of self-understanding to the power of its deadly machines...even to emerge from this period of what Jung called our "technological savagery."

Once when Jung seemed disconsolate, van der Post tried to convince him of all this. But in a letter soon afterwards Jung told him, "I am an increasingly lonely old man writing for other lonely men."

Recently I found at the Humboldt University Library several videotaped documentaries about Jung (including the one van der Post did for the BBC, with the eerie moment that Post is in Jung's house, describing that at the moment of his death there was a peal of thunder . And as he says this, there is a peal of thunder. Not dubbed in later. ) Several of them used parts of a series of taped interviews with Jung done by Richard Evans of the University of Houston. HSU also had the programs originally edited from these interviews. Their transcripts were published in a handy little Insight paperback; mine is a 1964 edition in great shape (printed on better paper than the van der Post.)

These interviews reveal other aspects of Jung that van der Post and others write about: his warmth, his humanity, maybe a little of his temper, and certainly his humor.

One of the documentary series' using the interviews is called "The Wisdom of the Dream," made in the late 1980s for England's Channel Four. Psychologist Merrill Berger and TV producer Stephen Segaller who created the programs also co-authored a book based on them, published in paperback by TV Books in 2000. (In a postscript, we learn they're a married couple.) Though it has the earmarks of the TV series in repetitions and fragmentation, it works remarkably well on its own. It allows for more detailed and sensitive exploration of Jung's work and its significance, and especially for more extended quotes from the people interviewed---including many of the last people then still alive who worked with Jung himself (he died in 1962) and some of Jung's children and grandchildren.

One anecdote reminded me of something I said to a class of mostly nurses taking an evening literature course many years ago---I was subbing for their regular instructor. Somehow I got to talking about words and the physical world. "Impacted" was a big word then, and I guess still is. Something is always impacting on something. But that's not always what's really meant. Impact means to hit hard, like the impact of one car smashing into another. But what's meant sometimes is closer to the word "influence." Influence is fluid, it has to do with flow: it's right there in the word.

So here is something one of Jung's grandsons remembers from a day on the lakeside, where rivulets were combining to flow into the lake:
"In the main stream it was cloudy. There something had been moved. And then a tributary came, very fresh and clean water. We saw that picture of this pure and limpid water going into the cloudy one and it made a special kind of design. And then I said to him 'Look at this interesting phenomenon' and then he looked and he said 'Yes. That is influence.'"

Today Jung's influence is considerable, though his impact may not be so obvious. The practice of psychology has embraced a new kind of mechanistic approach that mirrors behaviorism in that it sees the psyche as meaningless: namely matching the drug to the diagnosis. No more talk! Why try to understand the psyche when you can just take a pill to make it behave efficiently? Gene therapy and other interventions are just around the corner. That many in the field and in general can't figure out that you can have better drugs without negating the need for a better understanding of yourself, that you don't have to choose one or the other, that you can have gene therapy and use the tools and skills of Jungian analysis, as well as meditation, etc.---it all just proves Jung's point, that until we acknowledge the reality of the psyche and the conflicts within it, we're doomed to lurch back and forth from one one-sidedness to another, in perpetual dizzy stupidity.

On the other hand, Jung's influence is everywhere, from the cheesiest self-help books to the most complex attempts to reconcile and unify new and old knowledge-quantum physics, chaos theory, ecology, spirituality, neuroscience, myth, evolution...all that stuff. It's in Thomas More and his Soul books, Robert Johnson's little volumes, and it used to be on TV every week via Northern Exposure and Star Trek: The Next Generation. I hope this influence grows fast enough. I don't know if his ideas are a way to universal peace. But I'm pretty sure the conceptual tools he provides, and the skills to use them, are likely to be essential if humanity is to have a civilized future.

Berger and Segaller pretty much agree with van der Post on the meaning and significance of Jung's work: "In Jung's life, the buried treasure was the human soul, was the deeper dimension of the unconscious which could be united with the conscious life and thus help to make a person whole."

I have most of Jung's actual work yet to read, and read again. (Reading it again is another opportunity to learn what I missed. For example, a feature of extraversion jumped out at me the most recent time I saw a certain passage---that extraverts "definitely are more influenced by their surroundings than by their own intentions." Of course! Since--as other researchers maintain--some 75% of the American population are extraverts, this explains a lot. For instance why people are taking polls all the time to see what they think.)

Several memoirs (Barbara Hannah's for example) and books on Jung's psychology (Anthony Storr's) also await. Van der Post recommends Jung's letters. But I think the next volume I'll peruse is Gerhard Wehr's biography of Jung-a chronological view from the outside, just for the perspective. Knowing that it's only one kind of context, and not the most important. Not the heart of Jung.

1 comment:

janns411 said...

Very much enjoyed your post on Jung. I am desperately looking for a copy of that DVD you mentioned with Laurens van der Post and Jung (the one with the lightening in the background). I borrowed a copy, and though I meant to protect it like the gold it is, I commenced to misplaced it. I've spent hours to days looking for one near and far. Can you help by any chance? Thank you! Jann Cross