I’ve just finished writing a novel about Carl Gustav Jung. It took me at least two years (depends how you count), and much of that time was spent on research. There was a lot of ground to cover: Jung’s collected works run to 20 volumes and 9667 pages.
There are, of course, people who devote their entire careers to studying Jung. Compared to them, I’ve barely dipped my toe in the water. Even so, reading a more-than-average-amount of Jung changed my life. It changed the way I see the world, and the way I move through it. It also made me a bit of a Jung bore. In the great fever of my enthusiasm, there was hardly a topic of conversation that didn’t somehow lead back to Jung. Just ask my poor long-suffering family.
But what I noticed, bringing Jung up so often with pretty much everyone I met, was how few people had heard of him. Highly educated, graduate-degree people, who could handily rattle off an informal essay on Sigmund Freud, had never even heard of Carl Jung. And if they had heard of him, they knew next to nothing about his ideas, and if they knew something of his ideas, it was often wrong.
I wondered why that was. Jung and Freud birthed many of the concepts that shape our modern understanding of personality, purpose, and pain. Many of these they developed together, while others they developed separately. Freud is famous to the point of cliche, a trope in art, literature, and conversation. Jung is not. And yet, overall, Jung’s ideas seem more useful to me, more profound, and more empowering. I started to wonder, as I read, if Carl Jung and his family had lived in an English-speaking country, would his influence have come first? And if his influence had been been more pervasive than Freud’s, would we see the world differently?
A bit about Jung’s strange and interesting life: He was born in the 19th-century in Kesswil Switzerland. His native language was German. His father was a rural pastor, the thirteenth child of a distinguished Professor of Medicine. His mother was the thirteenth child of a renowned pastor, theologian, and Hebraist who believed in the occult and often spoke with the dead.
As a young child, Jung didn’t respect his father, “I associated weakness with the word father” and felt “a most vehement pity” for him. This feeling only increased with time. “My father lost his faith early, but due to financial constraints was forced to continue a life in the church, which he abhorred”. Jung believed this hypocrisy to be the tragedy of his father’s life.
Jung’s mother, on the other hand, lived a life “rooted deep in invisible ground”. She had psychic abilities and intuitive knowledge that Jung instinctively trusted. “My mother had two personalities, one in the day and another after dark”. When Jung was a child she complained of being harassed by spirits in the nighttime.
One evening, Jung saw a spirit leaving her room, removing its ghostly head. He was curious about this, as he was curious about the dangerous river he and his parents lived beside. He was curious about the bodies of drowned victims in the river, floating down from the falls above. He wasn’t afraid of death or spirits from the other side of death; he was curious.
Jung noticed he wasn’t like the other boys at school and in the village. He understood things they didn’t, in part because he read widely and profoundly in German, Latin, and Greek, and in part because he was so deeply introspective he was unable to deceive himself. “My peers found my personality repulsive, but eventually I realised there was nothing I could do about it.” His fellows gave him the nickname Father Abraham.
This serious and introspective boy grew up to be one of the greatest systematic thinkers of the twentieth century. He developed the concepts of introvert and extrovert, mother complex and father complex, archetypes and the collective unconscious. He created the Meyers-Briggs personality test and was the first to insist his analysands sat opposite him in counselling rather than lying on a couch.
A medical doctor, Jung worked for a decade treating the insane at the Burgholzil Sanatorium. In 1900, when he first joined the staff of the Burgholzil, medicine had little to offer people suffering from mental illness. Jung was determined to change this, and in the course of his career developed word association, complexes, dream analysis, and many other approaches that alleviated the suffering of the people he treated. He was fascinated by the minds of the mentally ill – for him their dreams, hallucinations, and gestures were not simply mad, but full of important meaning. His colleagues disagreed with him, tending to break things down so that everything was seen as working like a machine. This was thought to be the scientific way, but for Jung it wasn’t satisfactory.
Eventually, Jung developed analytical psychology. When he first met Freud, the famous founder of psychoanalysis, they fell into a conversation that lasted more than 13 hours. Jung was 32; Freud was 51. Freud called him “my successor”, “my son”, “the ablest helper who has joined me thus far”. It was 1907. In Europe and America, race theories proliferated. Freud, who was Jewish, worried that psychoanalysis was sometimes called “‘the Jewish cure”. Jung was undeniably gentile, six foot tall, handsome and athletic, with sandy brown hair and a venerable Swiss-German ancestry. Freud made much of Jung’s background, believing it critical to broadening the reputation of his “new science”.
But in 1912 Freud broke with Jung. It was a bitter break with many causes, primarily Jung’s need to develop independently in line with his own beliefs. Jung couldn’t accept Freud’s view that the main drive of life is sexual. He defined libido more broadly, as a life force. Jung also worried that Freud valued his personal authority above the quest for truth. And indeed Freud was unwilling to accept any divergence from the canon of his theories. When Jung published a series of articles contradicting this canon, the break was complete. It was to last all of Freud’s life; he never forgave Jung. Jung found the rejection so distressing he fell into a psychotic breakdown that lasted three years (Jung was not alone in this; others also suffered psychotic breakdowns after falling out with Freud, and some even committed suicide.)
In 1938, Freud fled Nazi Vienna for London. He died soon after, but his daughter Anna remained in London, promoting and continuing his work in one of the major capitals of the English-speaking world. Jung stayed in German-speaking Switzerland through World War II. The Nazis despised Freud and approved of Jung. Against Jung’s wishes, they co-opted his ideas, some of his publications, and some of his affiliations, casting an undeserved shadow over Jung’s reputation that persists to this day. Jung remained in Switzerland for the rest of his life; during and after the war, his German accent and connections went against him. Over time, his ideas, his name, fell second to Freud’s.
Today, we’re aware of the countless ways Freud’s ideas influence us and less conscious of Jung. This means, among other things, we probably try to heal ourselves by looking into the past for repressed trauma. We have a vague sense we aren’t supposed to experience pain, that pain must be cured, and that the cure is talking about it. I’m talking about the zeitgeist here, not about clinical approaches, which are, of course, more nuanced and varied. Pop psychology, self-help literature, and mainstream and social media often seem to reinforce this “Freudian” perspective.
Jung’s view was entirely different. He wasn’t much interested in the past, but rather in how a person was living in the present. He believed people are driven by a longing for fulfilment. He believed in a process he called “individuation” which he likened to a plant growing into the best, most flourishing, most fulfilled example of itself. The goal of a person’s life, therefore, was personal growth, and this could only come about through challenge, “Man needs difficulties; they are necessary for health”, and, at times, pain, “There’s no coming to consciousness without pain”. He also believed in “wholeness”, which necessarily includes an exploration and eventual acceptance of our “shadow”, the darkness we all hold within our unconscious. Pain and darkness are necessary parts of life that need to be observed, accepted, integrated. “No tree can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”
Jung believed the world is full of meaning. He revered myth, ritual, and symbol as expressions of the unconscious, both individual and collective. “Myth is created to carry meaning and relate humans to their environment and beyond, to the transcendent and infinite.” Even the natural world is full of meaning. “Trees in particular are mysterious and seem to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life.” He held a mystical outlook, rejected materialism, rationalism, and church religion. Instead, he worshipped in the temple of nature, among trees, stones, and water. “In the country, among rivers and woods, among men and animals in a small village bathed in sunlight, with the winds and the clouds moving over it, and encompassed by dark night in which uncertain things happened… This was no mere locality on the map, but ‘God’s world’, so ordered by Him and filled with secret meaning.”
For me personally, the paradigm shift away from looking for “repressed childhood wounds” toward cleaving to my path of individuation has been enormous, encouraging resilience and movement rather than blame and victimhood. Meanwhile, Jung’s understanding that “man cannot stand a meaningless life” has given me a sense of freedom to look for meaning in the world: in nature and in my internal life. These are just a tiny sampling of the ideas, of Jung’s, that have changed the way I see the world. Why did I have to look so hard to find them?
If Jung had lived in an English-speaking country, would his influence have come first above others? And if his influence had been been more pervasive than Freud’s, would we see the world differently? Would we live in a world full of meaning? Would we be rapt with reverence for nature and her mysteries? Would Jung’s influence have made us braver, more resilient, more whole?