Being granted a vision of the depths doesn’t exempt you from having to live on the surface. As I thought of this I glanced at Carl Jung’s Red Book, which depicts in its rawest form Jung’s encounter with his own depths. On the surface he had already established a successful career as a psychiatrist, married into wealth, and was supported during his journey by his wife and, uh, his other wife, a woman named Toni Wolfe. This is the best possible way to enter the underworld – when you’re established and surrounded by supportive women and children.
On the one hand we can be thankful that Jung was able to enter his journey with the fewest external distractions possible, because it enabled him to bring back so much wisdom from the Unconscious. But it doesn’t necessarily help those people with as many problems in the outer world as in the inner world. It’s possible that Jung was just an extraordinarily lucky bastard, since he could know that his outer life was full of loving and supportive people and tremendous professional success. I say this because I have no idea how to confront the problems of my own life. Anyone who studies Jung must reconcile what part of Jung’s life could be attributed to the luck of Jung’s circumstances.
Under what conditions is it possible to encounter the Unconscious and live to tell about it? Is it appropriate for someone like me, for example, to encounter the Unconscious? Should I expect to survive the ordeal, given the objective facts of my own life? On the one hand I’m grateful Jung was able to survive at all. If it took great health, tremendous professional success, wealth, a perfect home life, not to mention a second wife — if it took all these things in order to allow Jung to bring back his treasure, then why should I wish he had less of these things?
It kind of relativizes his success in a way. For example, I wouldn’t know where to get a blank Red Book even if I wanted to fill one up. I guess you’d go to an art supply store? Here’s another example. Jung said that he didn’t know how anyone could live without being near water. Well, Carl, there’s a whole shitload of people who don’t get to live near bodies of water for all sorts of fucked up reasons. Take, for example, the fact that we’re not all fabulously wealthy, and that we can’t all just up and move to expensive waterfront property like you. I have another example. We’re not all Swiss. Some of us are just stupid Americans who grew up in suburbs. Individuate that. We didn’t have cute little parents who actually gave a crap what happened to us because they were too busy with their own selfish lives.
Well, at any rate, at least I can say it’s a love-hate relationship I have with Dr. Jung. He happens to have opened up channels of exploration which no one else did. The difficulty we have now is in trying to calculate the value of his more mystical works. It should be evident to anyone that there is a substantial mind exploring some very deep places. Ironically he has also given us the best terminology for discussing the value of his works, that of personal unconscious and collective unconscious.
Almost all moderns will admit to believing in a personal unconscious if you define it for them. For example, if anyone has ever had a dream and not understood parts of it, then that demonstrates that they have a personal unconscious. What few people believe is that what happens in the personal unconscious may be connected to forces operating in their environment among more than just themselves. I need to mention that there are necessarily different kinds of collective unconscious, because different groups of people may be implied. You could have a family unconscious, for example, in which one member’s dreams produce symbols which have validity for their entire family, and yet could not be extended reasonably beyond that. A specific uncle for example. But the idea of an uncle could apply to anyone who has an uncle, or knows someone who has an uncle. Sometimes in a dream the idea actually matters more than the specific person. So if I dream about Uncle Charlie, the fact that he’s my uncle might be the more relevant factor — his peg leg might not come into it at all. But if its the peg leg or another detail that matters, then you can’t really say the idea of Uncle mattered. At any rate, the idea would be called the Archetype of the Uncle.
The meaning of the Archetype is by no means determined though. It could mean different things to different people. Jung’s claim is that some of the Archetypes carry the same meaning for ALL people. That’s the total opposite of the personal unconscious, in which the figure appearing in the dream would have meaning only for the person who dreamt it. This is actually a pretty audacious claim, since there are so many levels in which the meaning could vary from group to group. Dreaming of a butterfly might mean something totally different to an aboriginal Australian than to a suburbanite like myself. But the difference could extend to much narrower spheres. For example, my High School mascot was the Panther. Therefore anyone from my high school will have a slightly different understanding of the symbol of the Panther than the people from the neighboring High School. This part of Panther-ness would be a part of a collective mythos of my High School, but would only extend to people who went there (or encountered it somehow), and the appearance of a Panther in my dream might appear to a naive psychoanalyst to mean something completely different from what it really does mean. Therefore a local version of a symbol could modify or contaminate what the symbol might mean in a broader way. This local effect can extend to all sorts of various regions, large or small. The appearance of a compact Japanese car in a dream would have generally different connotations in an American than in a Japanese. There are many levels of groupings starting from the individual and moving all the way up to the whole human race.
Because of so many possible contaminations on so many different levels, it becomes very hard to declare some symbol or experience to be characteristic of a Universal Collective unconscious. Nonetheless this claim is made by Jung. Another important item to point out, is that as soon as contact is established between one group of people and another group then arguments for the collective unconscious become that much harder because one can then claim that the one group’s knowing the other group was the reason their symbols carried the same meanings. In a digitally connected world, needless to say, it will be virtually impossible to prove by experiment and analysis that the meaning of a symbol comes directly from the universal collective unconscious, as opposed to by means of cultural diffusion.
OK, now that I’ve described the meanings of the personal and collective unconscious(es), I’ll return to the main point. I said that these two terms are the best way of evaluating Jung’s works. The question is whether Jung’s more mystical works are better described as expressions of a personal unconscious or of the collective Unconscious. As I have just described, there is actually much room in between. They could be expressions of the Collective unconscious of the Swiss People, for example, of the German-speaking peoples, or, to continue that analysis, of the unconscious of those people living in the Protestant countries, or in all the Christendom, or in all the monotheistic countries (hence including the Muslims and Jews as well), or in all the Advanced Civilizations (thus adding China, India, Japan), or indeed in the Universal Collective unconscious, which then adds all the primitive cultures and whatever else I didn’t mention as well. The value of Jung’s (mystical) writings must necessarily be limited to those cultures into which his unconscious was tapped, which might well be all of them, but there’s no reason to assume so.
The harshest critics will limit Jung’s contribution to exactly one person, himself. There’s actually a guy who did this, and I found his book in a used book store. It’s called What’s Wrong With Jung. I don’t want to comment on this book, other than to say that it shows how varied the responses to Jung’s efforts have been.
So what was I talking about? Anxiety of Influence – the phrase coined by a literary critic named Harold Bloom. “Genius recognizes genius,” he said. I certainly suffer Anxiety of Influence when it comes to Carl Jung. When I start reading him it’s like diving into an ocean of paradox and knowledge, experience, and just plain weirdness. But I also recognize genius. For me, when it comes to Carl Jung, “The way out is through.” (I just discovered that phrase today in a film on the internet – look up Doraleous and Associates – it’s quite funny.)
Anyway, Anxiety of Influence is what happens to all English playwrights who come after Shakespeare, when they have to consciously confront the existence of Shakespeare’s plays. Harold Bloom says that the good playwrights cannot avoid confronting this, that indeed their creativity comes from their attempts to adapt to the existence of the great ones before them. I imagine all music composers after Beethoven have had this problem.
Well, Carl Jung is my Shakespeare. I consider my topic to be Philosophy rather than Psychology, but that’s actually an arbitrary distinction because the two seem to merge so completely with Carl Jung. Philosophy means The Love of Wisdom, and that’s where I build my camp. I can’t comment on the extent to which Philosophy, as it is taught in modern classrooms, is related to the Love of Wisdom, since I don’t know any Philosophy Professors. Who knows? The modern Philosophy classroom may have as close a relationship to the Love of Wisdom as the Defense Department has to Defense, which is probably why we need both a separate department called “Homeland Security”, and actual Philosophers like myself.