Jung: A Biography

by Deirdre Bair
ISBN: 0316159387

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A Review of: Jung, a Biography
by Hugh Graham

The maternal grandfather of the great psychologist, Carl G. Jung, had the habit of retiring to his study to talk with his dead wife, and a generation later, Jung's mother had regular encounters with spirits and visions. Imbued with this atmosphere since childhood, Jung, as a young medical student, chose psychiatry (in those days, around the turn of the century, the paranormal came under the rubric of psychology). His choice continued to be vindicated: one day, as he was studying, a table in the adjoining room split asunder of its own will, and another time, a bread knife spontaneously shattered. The intrusions did not stop with professional recognition. On his first visit to Freud, in Vienna, a loud crack exploded from inside a cabinet, without visible cause. A few years later, his young son's nightmare, reflecting a vision Jung himself had had, provoked three days of hauntings, upsetting the whole family until Jung exorcised the demons by writing the Seven Sermons.
We owe these accounts to the excruciating detail of Deirdre Bair's Jung, A Biography. Bair leaves these incidents to speak for themselves, allowing us to wonder if his great discovery, the collective unconscious, might be more eerily intrusive than we imagine. The earthy paganism that surged up in his childhood dreams seem to bear it out: the primitive life-force of a giant subterranean phallus, or of God defecating on a cathedral, sent him on a life-long search for the dark force in all of us that is so desperate to break out.
The beginnings were inauspicious. As a child in Basel, Jung was sent to school in winter in bare feet inside leaky boots, and when he joined the Bugholzli Clinic in Zurich as a psychologist, he had scarcely a change of clothes. A period of insecurity was followed by virtuosity and innovation, in which he developed the word-association tests that are still used in psychiatry. Soon he became the overbearing yet compelling force of nature that he remained for the rest of his life: challenging the clinic's brilliant director, Eugen Bleuler (the discoverer of schizophrenia), and marrying the wealthy Emma Rauschenbach, who brought into her husband's life the material security that allowed him to leave the clinic and to follow his own pursuits.
The great break-through had already come in 1910 when Jung examined a Burgholzli patient and schizophrenic by the name of Schwitzer. Schwitzer believed that the sun had a phallus and that he could control the wind that issued from the solar phallus' by shaking his head. Schwitzer was uneducated, yet this grotesque vision turned out to have its source in a piece of ancient Mithraic liturgy that portrayed the sun equipped with a tube from which the wind blew. It was thus that Jung discovered that ancient and innate reservoir of symbolic knowledge known as the collective unconscious.
Like her account of the Schwitzer case, Bair's method is thorough, but at times, Jung's trajectory barely survives the welter of facts: names and thumbnail portraits of colleagues, relatives, patients and connections of connections seem endless. As the burden of data grows, we begin to beg for the succinctness of an essay rather than the comprehensiveness of an archive.
Nevertheless Jung emerges. Perhaps only a man as bull-headed and tactless could bushwhack his way through Bair's jungle of detail. She sheds sharp light on the shadow cast by his association and alleged sympathy with Nazi Germany; and it's his heedlessness, not his politics, that is held to account. While the growing persecution of the Jews demanded that he keep a strategic silence, Jung continued to comment publicly on the unconscious in terms of racial and national differences. With similar poor judgment he remained close to the Nazi Psychological Society in an attempt control and correct it, instead of keeping his distance. That he had no use for Nazism, foresaw the "Blonde Beast" of the Germanic unconscious in 1918, and despised Hitler, was all but forgotten when post-war zealots named him in their search for Nazi sympathizers.
The tendency to be out of touch with his times was one more symptom of his inability to act with subtlety. According to his own system, Jung was an Introverted Intuitive' type, meaning that he saw the world in terms of his own idea, rather than adapting his idea to the world. His brilliant insights into culture and its role in the collective past left him blind not just to politics but to any culture produced after the nineteenth century. Picasso and Joyce left him cold. It was the same profound feel for the past and philistine insensitivity to the present that led to his rupture with Freud.
Here, for once, Bair gives us a clear-cut drama. She provides, in Freud, an Extrovert' foil to Jung's Introvert'. For both men, the libido was central; but for Freud the libido and its ills were purely sexual and sexual trauma an urgent problem of the present. Jung, by contrast, was concerned with the totality of psychic energy accumulated from the historical past. For as long as he could, Jung played the part of Freud's respectfully dissenting follower. Freud, however, could not have allies, only apostles; and the break finally came on the eve of World War One.
After freeing himself from the master, Jung turned out to be authoritarian too, though not as doctrinaire. The Psychological Club in Zurich, ostensibly a forum for discussion, became a vehicle for his latest ideas and eventually a Holy of Holies' for the cult that surrounded him. Though he abruptly quashed dissent, Jung remained humble and in awe of things he did not yet understand. He got on well with the tribe he studied in East Africa and was finally chastened by the inscrutability of Africa's great unconscious. On a trip to India he was dumbfounded by the relegation of good and evil to the passing phenomenal world. There were also those in his life whom he respected and upon whom he depended: at the death of his colleague and alleged lover, Toni Wolff, and later, of his wife Emma, he was immobilized by grief.
Women were central to his life and Bair uses their relations with him to cast light on his prejudices. While he expected ordinary Swiss women to play their traditional role, he treated as equals the upper class, educated, (and especially foreign) women who came to surround him like a phalanx. His awkwardness with the opposite sex faded behind their adulation. He became known as a ladies' man and there was much speculation on the nature of his liaisons with two women who graduated from patient to student to colleague: Sabina Spilrein and Tony Wolff. To explain the intensity of his intellectual relationship with Wolff, he described her as his "anima", the female counterpart in his own psyche. Emma-herself a student, analyst and colleague to her husband-reluctantly acquiesced as Toni Wolff became a regular part of the Jung household. Men, by contrast, tended toward respectful dissent which Jung angrily rebuffed. In the end he had his way in almost everything.
In the decade after the first war, he gradually left theory and practice to move toward an exploration of the collective unconscious. It was in ancient Gnosticism that he found the richest trove of symbols and ideas that recurred in the unconscious. Gnosticism, however, reached a dead end when he could find nothing that connected it to the present world. But clues trickled in: a 1944 heart infarct left him bed-ridden with dreams that embraced entire continents suggesting a mission of uniting ideas from East and West. Henceforth, two paradoxical theories were central: that individuation, the therapeutic goal of becoming a whole individual lay in the impersonal, that is, the collective unconscious; and the collective unconscious itself could only be grasped in terms of the union of opposites, particularly of the masculine and feminine.
Jung had entered old age when he finally found the deep vein of symbol that connected Gnostic symbolism with the modern world. The metaphor upon which the conscious and unconscious minds could be seen to reconcile themselves lay in the symbols of medieval alchemy. Since psychic health was a process of individuation and individuation came out of the union of opposites, Jung's remaining mission was to illustrate that goal, the culmination of his life's work, in what he called the Mysterium Coniunctionis. The book of that name remains his last major work.
As the constant expansion of his quest shows, Jung was less rigid a thinker than Freud. If he was single-minded and impervious to dissent, he used method only in his teaching while his analysis with patients remained an adventure in unexplored territory. Bair brings plenty of evidence to bear on Jung's open-mindedness, but at the heart of her marvellous and infuriating storm of fact, something is missing: she's curiously silent on his effectiveness as a physician and the usefulness of his therapy. Somehow one wants to have seen more of the man, who, in the words of a close associate, "wanted to get his patients to integrate the necessary suffering into their lives, to accept and bear it as part of their wholeness-for without darkness and sorrow there is no life. To soothe it away or exclude it would rob them of a vital experience, while the core of the depression would remain and soon enough provoke new suffering." In the end, Jung, A Biography is a little like a face on Mount Rushmore: monumental, complete, but often as not, difficult to get close to.

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