Jung: The Man and His Symbols
Carl Jung in a nutshell.
Posted Apr 08, 2012
[Article updated on 7 September 2017]
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
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 who rose to become Rector of Basel University and Grand Master of the Swiss Lodge of Freemasons. 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 belief 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 so as to prevent the devil from peering over his shoulder. When Jung was three years old, his mother had a nervous breakdown and spent several months in hospital. In his autobiography of 1961, Memory, Dreams, Reflections, 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.’ As for his father, he was kind but weak-willed, and all too accepting of the religious dogma in which he had long lost all faith.
Jung was a solitary and introverted child who imagined that he had two personalities, that of a typical schoolboy of his time (Personality No. 1), and that of a dignified, authoritative, and influential man from the past (Personality No. 2). 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 his attic. He periodically returned to the mannequin, bringing to it scrolls inscribed in a secret language of his invention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was not popular at school. At the age of 12, he received a blow to the head and for a moment was unconscious. 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 avoided school by fainting each time his parents tried to make him go—an episode which gave him an early insight into hysteria.
Inspired by a dream, Jung entered the University of Basel in 1895 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.’ During his early years at the University of Basel, Jung had a dream in which he was battling against dense fog, with a tiny light in the cup of his hands and a gigantic 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 to choose psychiatry as a career. The preface alone had such a profound effect 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 sent a copy to Freud, and on their first meeting in Vienna the two men conversed without interruption for thirteen hours.
Jung needed a father as much as Freud needed a son, and Freud formally anointed Jung his ‘son and heir’. However, as time passed, it became increasingly clear that Jung was unable to accept Freud’s assumptions that human motivation is exclusively sexual, and that the unconscious mind is entirely personal. For Jung, sexuality was but one aspect or mode of a broader ‘life force’, and beneath the personal unconscious there lay a deeper and more important layer that contained the entire psychic heritage of mankind. The existence of this ‘collective unconscious’ had been hinted at by Jung’s childhood dreams and experiences, and confirmed by the delusions and hallucinations of psychotic people which contained symbols and images that occurred in myths and fairy-tales 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, arguing that this energy could ‘crystallize’ into the universal symbols contained in dreams and myths, for example, into 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 First World 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 bordered on psychosis and led him to a ‘confrontation with the unconscious’. By then Jung 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 home-maker, observing that, ‘the pre-requisite of a good marriage... is the license to be unfaithful.’ The marital strife that resulted from his affairs, particularly his affair with a former patient called Toni Wolff, contributed to his troubled state of mind, and Emma accepted Toni as much from a concern for Jung’s sanity as from a desire to salvage her marriage.
During his confrontation with the unconscious, Jung gained first-hand experience of psychotic material in which he found a ‘matrix of mythopoeic imagination which has vanished from our rational age’. Like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Heracles, Orpheus, and Aeneas before him, he travelled deep down into an abyssal underworld where he conversed with Salome, a beautiful young woman who was the archetype of the feminine, and with Philemon, an old man with a white beard and the wings of a kingfisher who was the archetype of the wise old man. 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 the prefigured what Jung himself was later to become: the ‘wise old man of Zürich’. At the end of the First World War, Jung re-emerged into sanity, and considered that he had found in his madness ‘the prima materia for a lifetime’s work’.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, The Meaning of Madness, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, and other books.