Jung: The Man and His Symbols
Carl Jung in a nutshell.
Posted April 8, 2012
[Article revised on 5 December 2020.]
Carl Gustav Jung was born in 1875 in the canton of Thurgau to Paul Jung, a poor rural pastor in the Swiss reformed Church, and Emilie Preiswerk, a melancholic woman who claimed to be visited by spirits at night. His paternal grandfather, Carl Gustav Jung, after whom he was named, was a physician who was rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Goethe, and rose to become Rector of Basal University and Grand Master of the Swiss Lodge of Free Masons. His maternal grandfather, Samuel Preiswerk, was an eccentric theologian who had visions, conversed with the dead, and devoted his life to learning Hebrew in the conviction that it was the language spoken in heaven. He used to make his daughter Emilie (Jung’s mother) sit behind him while he composed his sermons, to prevent the devil from peering over his shoulder.
When Jung was just three years old, his mother had a nervous breakdown and spent several months in hospital. In his memoirs of 1961, he wrote: ‘From then on I always felt mistrustful when the word ‘love’ was spoken. The feeling I associated with ‘woman’ was for a long time that of innate unreliability.’ Jung’s father was kind but weak-willed, and, in Jung’s mind, too accepting of the religious dogma in which he had lost all faith. Jung was a solitary child who imagined that he had two personalities, that of a typical schoolboy of his time, and that of a dignified, authoritative, and influential man from the past. He once carved a tiny mannequin into the end of a wooden ruler, which he kept together with a painted stone in a pencil case in the attic. He periodically returned to the mannequin, bringing to it scrolls inscribed in a secret language of his own making. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was not popular at school. At the age of 12, he received a blow to the head and lost consciousness for a moment. He lay on the ground for much longer than necessary, and thought, ‘Now you won’t have to go to school anymore.’ For the next six months, he managed to avoid going to school by fainting each time his parents tried to make him—an episode which gave him an early insight into hysteria.
In 1895, inspired by a dream, Jung went up to Basel to study natural science and medicine. His father’s premature death one year later prompted his mother to comment, rather eerily, that ‘he died in time for you’. While studying in Basal, Jung had a dream in which he was battling against dense fog, with a tiny light in the cup of his hands and a giant black figure chasing after him. When he awoke, he realized that the black figure was his own shadow, brought into being by the light that he was carrying: ‘…this light was my consciousness, the only light that I have. My own understanding is the sole treasure I possess, and the greatest.’ After presenting a paper on The Limits of the Exact Sciences, he spent two years attending and recording the séances of a young medium, his cousin, Hélène Preiswerk. He submitted his observations in the form of a doctoral thesis entitled, On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena.
Towards the end of his studies, a reading of Krafft-Ebing’s textbook of psychiatry led Jung straight into psychiatry. The preface alone had such a profound impact on him that he had to stand up to catch his breath: ‘Here alone the two currents of my interest could flow together and in a united stream dig their own bed. Here was the empirical field common to biological and spiritual facts, which I had everywhere sought and nowhere found.’ Jung was taken on at the renowned Burghölzli Psychiatric Hospital in Zürich as an assistant to Eugen Bleuler, who went down in history as the man who coined the term ‘schizophrenia’. Bleuler set his new assistant to work on Galton’s word-association test, and in 1906 Jung published Studies in Word Association, which, he claimed, provided hard evidence for the existence of unconscious complexes. He send a copy to Freud, and on their first meeting in Vienna, Freud and Jung conversed for thirteen hours straight.
Jung needed a father as much as Freud needed a son, and Freud formally anointed Jung his ‘son and heir’. But over time, Jung became increasingly unable to accept Freud’s assumptions that human motivation is entirely sexual, and that the unconscious mind is exclusively personal. For Jung, sexuality was but one aspect or mode of a broader life force, and beneath the personal unconscious there lay a deeper layer that contained the entire psychic heritage of humankind. This collective unconscious had been hinted at by Jung’s childhood dreams and experiences, and also by the delusions and hallucinations of his patients, which contained symbols and images that recurred in myths and stories from all around the world. In his book of 1912, Transformations and Symbols of the Libido, Jung replaced Freud’s concept of libido with a much broader concept of undifferentiated psychic energy, which could however crystallize into universal symbols such as the hero’s slaying of the dragon, which represents the struggle of the adolescent ego for deliverance from parental dominance. For Jung, the purpose of life was individuation, which involves pursuing one’s own vision of the truth, and, in so doing, realizing one’s fullest potential as a human being. If this meant disagreeing with Freud, then so be it. In 1913, on the eve of the Great War, Jung and Freud broke off their relationship.
Once again, Jung was alone, and he spent the next few years in a troubled but highly creative state of mind that verged on psychosis and led him to a ‘confrontation with the unconscious’. By then, he had had five children with his wife Emma Rauschenbach, the daughter of a rich industrialist. Despite being happily married, he felt that he needed a muse as well as a homemaker, observing that ‘the pre-requisite of a good marriage… is the license to be unfaithful’. The marital strife that resulted from his affairs, especially his affair with a former patient called Toni Wolff, contributed to his troubled state of mind, and Emma tolerated Toni as much from a concern for Jung’s sanity as from a desire to salvage her marriage.
As Europe tore itself apart, Jung gained first-hand experience of psychotic material in which he found ‘a matrix of mythopœic imagination which has vanished from our rational age’. Like Gilgamesh, Orpheus, Odysseus, Heracles, and Æneas before him, he travelled deep down into an abyssal underworld where he conversed with Salome, an attractive young woman, and with Philemon, an old man with a white beard and the wings of a kingfisher. Although Salome and Philemon were products of his unconscious, they had lives of their own and said things that he had not previously thought. In Philemon, Jung had at long last found the father-figure that both Freud and his own father had failed to be. More than that, Philemon was a guru, and prefigured what Jung himself was later to become: the ‘wise old man of Zürich’. As the war burnt out, Jung re-emerged into sanity, and considered that he had found in his madness ‘the prima materia for a lifetime’s work’.
My top 12 Jung quotations
1. As a child I felt myself to be alone, and I am still, because I know things and must hint at things which others apparently know nothing of, and for the most part do not want to know.
2. Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.
3. What did you do as a child that made the hours pass like minutes? Herein lies the key to your earthly pursuits.
4. The greatest tragedy of the family is the unlived lives of the parents.
5. Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
6. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.
7. Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
8. Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.
9. The secret is that only that which can destroy itself is truly alive.
10. The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.
11. As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.
12. Man cannot stand a meaningless life.
Neel Burton is author of Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking and other books.