Monday, June 13, 2011

Carl Gustav Jung

The Swiss psychologist and thinker Carl Gustav Jung died fifty years ago at the age of 85. A few years before he died, when I was in college, I acquired a paperback collection of some of Jung's essays. I read them because I was then much preoccupied with the problem of creativity. The only thing I remember from this perusal is the banal observation (since abundantly proved experientially) that we have different goals in the second half of our life than the ones that guided us in the first half.

In those days Jung was at the height of his fame. The Bollingen Foundation was issuing a sumptuous 21-volume set of English translations of his writings. Many artists and writers acknowledged his influence, and some found Jungian therapy helpful.

In his early years, before his association with Sigmund Freud, Jung did some important work in academic psychology. He posited a series of personality types, coining the term introvert for an individual who needs quality time on his/her own, and extrovert (although Jung spelled it "extravert") for the person who never feels better than when in a crowd. Later personality tests, such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicators, draw on these distinctions.

Gradually, though, Jung seemed to drift off into mysticism, finally falling off the deep end, as one can see from the recently published facsimile of the Red Book, a personal illuminated manuscript that he created to exorcise (or perhaps reify) his demons. The facsimile is beautifully produced, and should be acquired as a kind of splendid artifact.

Jung's followers hold that his central contribution lies in his detection of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. There are five main archetypes: the Self, the Shadow, the Animus, the Anima, and the Persona. These primary archetypes have innumerable avatars, including the Great Mother, the Wise Old Man, the Trickster, the Apollo, and so forth. As far as I can tell, no one has ever devised tests that might demonstrate the objective existence of these purported psychic elementals.

Jung's ideas about alchemy are fanciful, to say the least. In some ways he seemed to be a late product of the speculative side of German romanticism.

During World War I, however, Jung made an important discovery when he noted the similarity of certain diagrammatic drawings made by his mental patients to the South Asian mandalas of Buddhism. Since the patients could have no knowledge of these artifacts, the similarity seems to attest something fundamental about the human mind. Ever since learning of this parallel, I have been fascinated with "mind maps."

UPDATE (July 4). In a six-part series appearing in the British paper The Guardian, Mark Vernon offers a sympathetic view of what Jung accomplished, and what it may mean for today. Here are some excerpts on the archetypes:

"The theory of archetypes is controversial, and Jung did not help himself in this respect. For one thing, he is not very consistent in his definition of archetypes – though he can perhaps be forgiven as he explicitly called himself a "borrower" of models and insights from other fields of knowledge, in his attempts to grapple with his own. Archetypes have also variously been accused of being Lamarckian and superfluous, on the grounds that cultural transmission provides an adequate explanation for the phenomena that Jung would put down to psychic universals.

"That said, striking parallels to archetypes have emerged across a number of fields since Jung's own formulation. Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote of "unconscious infrastructures" that shape common customs and institutions. Noam Chomsky calls the basic forms of language "deep structures". Sociobiology has the notion of "epigenetic rules", laws of behaviour that have evolved over time.

"In fact, the possibility that Jungian archetypes might be commensurate with biology was implied by EO Wilson [the Harvard sociobiologist] in his book Consilience. He raised the possibility that science might make them "more concrete and verifiable". Following Wilson's lead, the psychiatrist Anthony Stevens sees archetypes at work in ethology, the study of animal behaviour in natural habitats. Animals have sets of stock behaviours, ethologists note, apparently activated by environmental stimuli. That activation is dependent upon what are known as "innate releasing mechanisms". The fungus cultivated by the leafcutter ant ensures the ant only collects the kind of leaf that the fungus requires. The emerald head of the mallard drake causes the mallard duck to become amorous. Other characteristics from maternal bonding to male rivalry might be called archetypal too.

"What interested Jung was not just the mechanisms involved but the experience these creatures have when behaving in such ways. Of the yucca moth, he speculates: "If we could look into the psyche of the yucca moth, for instance, we would find in it a pattern of ideas, of a numinous or fascinating character, which … compels the moth to carry out its fertilising activity on the yucca plant." The thought reminds me of David Attenborough gazing at spiders, in his programme Life in the Underground, and wondering about their apparently varied characters.

"The idea is that the greater the complexity of the organism, the more intricate the archetypal behaviour and the richer the associated experience. When it comes to human beings, the archetypes are not only associated with patterns of behaviour, and powerful experiences of allure, but with meaning and significance too. Hence, human beings are subject to archetypes that Jung was to name the hero and the shadow, the animus and anima, alongside many others.

"How far you might want to follow Jung along this path is moot, as it is among contemporary Jungians too. The shadow is a useful concept to many, as that side of our character which is often buried and sometimes, suddenly emerges, in behaviour from road rage to crimes of passion. The notion of the animus and the anima, say, are more contested."



Anonymous Helen said...

Very useful piece of writing, much thanks for your post.

11:26 AM  

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