Man and His Symbols
Outline of a Jungian Aesthetics
One of the least remarked characteristics of the thought of C. G. Jung is its almost total lack of cultural context. The history of Jung’s affiliation to and break with Freud, as usually recounted, conveys a quite false sense of historical continuity. As the story is told, Freud is seen both as heir to, and reaction against, the atomistic conscious psychology of the nineteenth century, while Jung, Adler, Reich, and the rest are seen as off-shoots of the same heredity and reaction. No doubt this story is necessary to explain how the adult Jung came to give to his thought the form that he did.
Suppose however that we try to place this Freudian interlude in Jung’s career against the backcloth of the drama of the boy in Jung’s autobiography who, although he came from a professional family, felt rooted in the world of rural custom, of peasant religion, of childhood imaginings, and who, when he first came to Basel, took all too uneasily to the modern, urban, mechanized, rational scheme of things. This boy outwardly conforms to the demands of science and city life. But he grows into a man whose mission it is to explain how we can still believe in gods, devils, charms, and fates. And not merely to explain how we can so believe, but to urge our lack of belief in them as the cause of the evils which befall us:
As scientific understanding has grown, so our world has become dehumanized. Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos, because he is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional “unconscious identity” with natural phenomena. These have slowly lost their symbolic implications. Thunder is no longer the voice of an angry god, nor is lightning his avenging missile.
Yet in order to sustain his creed, contemporary man pays the price in a remarkable lack of introspection. He is blind to the fact that with all his rationality and efficiency, he is possessed by “powers” that are beyond his control. His gods and demons have not disappeared at all; they have merely got new names. They keep him on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an insatiable need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, food—and above all, a large array of neuroses.
These two quotations are taken from Jung’s own contribution to a remarkable book in which the form is precisely matched to the content of Jung’s thought. Man and His Symbols is a book in which the text explains the pictures, rather than the pictures illustrating the text. There are more than 500 pictures, ranging from a portrait of Jung, a Feiffer cartoon, and the title page of Hobbes’s Leviathan to reproductions of primitive symbols and modern paintings. The way the book has been produced suggests that it is intended as an object to be viewed with emotion rather than as an argument to be read and assessed. The style of the contributors bears this out. They…
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