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 do not write like scientists advancing hypotheses, but like religious or magical teachers unveiling their truths. This they do extremely well. Dr. Marie-Louise von Franz writes about the process of individuation, that growth of the personality which may be distorted by, among other things, the unbalance of modern life, and restored by a Jungian analysis; Dr. Joseph Henderson discusses ancient myths and their meaning for modern man; Mrs. Aniela Jaffé, Jung’s secretary and biographer, writes about symbolism in the visual arts; Dr. Jolande Jacobi describes an analysis. The whole is preceded by Jung himself on the Unconscious and concluded by Dr. von Franz on the relations between Jungian theory and natural science.
The extreme clarity of the writing does not prevent the contributors from talking a good deal of nonsense; but the nonsense lies in Jung’s theory, not in their presentation of it. It is not surprising that the nonsense becomes most obvious when attempts are made to relate Jungian ideas to the concepts of contemporary physics.
Bohr’s idea of complementarity is especially interesting to Jungian psychologists, for Jung saw that the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind also forms a complementary pair of opposites…Thus the unconscious can only be approximately described (like the particles of microphysics) by paradoxical concepts…
As a final example of parallel developments in microphysics and psychology, we can consider Jung’s concept of meaning. Where before men looked for causal (i.e. rational) explanations of phenomena, Jung introduced the idea of looking for the meaning (or, perhaps we could say, the “purpose”). That is, rather than ask why something happened (i.e. what caused it), Jung asked: What did it happen for: This same tendency appears in physics: Many modern physicists are now looking for “connections” in nature rather than for causal laws (determinism).
So Dr. Marie-Louise von Franz. There is not a glimmering of a connection between the notion of “purpose” and quantum mechanics. One’s response to this kind of muddle should be not simply to note the author’s ignorance of the physical concepts employed by Schrödinger, Heisenberg, or Bohr. It should rather be to see here a confirmation of the view that Jungian theory and science cannot be brought together, for they inhabit quite different conceptual realms.
Jung himself oscillated on the relationship of his views to science; often he claims to be, and talks like, a scientist. But he can also write that “To the scientific mind, such phenomena as symbolic ideas are a nuisance because they cannot be formulated in a way that is satisfactory to intellect and logic.” Or writing of the facts of emotion he can say that “I know enough of the scientific point of view to understand that it is most annoying to have to deal with facts that cannot be completely or adequately grasped. The trouble with these phenomena is that the facts are undeniable and yet cannot be formulated in intellectual terms.”
In these passages both science and intellect are opposed to something that Jung has grasped. That this opposition is genuine becomes clear when we consider two other aspects of Jung’s thought. The first is his insistence that the contents of the psyche are as “real” as what exists in the external world. The important fact about this insistence is that in any acceptable and intelligible sense of “real,” Jung would not need to assert this since nobody presumably denies it. And the autonomy that he confers on the contents of the psyche is in fact highly ambiguous. Sometimes he even seems to treat the archetypal images which appear in dreams, in works of art, and in religion as autonomous agents. Jung supplements and supports this multiplication of beings by a pragmatic appeal to belief in religion. Religious beliefs, so Jung argues, cannot be proved to be true; but they cannot be proved to be false either. The choice whether to believe or not is arbitrary.
There is, however, a strong empirical reason why we should cultivate thoughts that can never be proved. It is that they are known to be useful. Man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give a meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe…Had St. Paul been convinced that he was nothing more than a wandering weaver of carpets, he certainly would not have been the man he was. His real and meaningful life lay in the inner certainty that he was the messenger of the Lord.
The message then is: believe it if it makes your life meaningful. It is important to see that this message does not by itself discredit either Jungian psychotherapy or Jungian theory. Men have often enough been both stabilized and inspired by false beliefs. But of course this is not the stability which Jungian theory claims that the patient may acquire in the course of a Jungian analysis. The defect of Jungian theory is that it does not in fact purport to provide us with genuine experimentally or observationally tested explanations at all. Consider two of the central themes of Jungian theory: the classification of the types of personality and the belief in the Collective Unconscious. Jung classifies people into those in whom respectively thought, feeling, sensation, and intuition are dominant, each type being subdivided further into extravert and introvert. This last distinction has been interestingly developed by Eysenck for use in experimental work, and it may be that other Jungian concepts can be similarly sharpened and used. But in Jung’s own writings no attempt is ever reported to test hypotheses using the Jungian classifications. If, for example, one joins this classification with the Jungian thesis that dreams are compensatory for deficiencies in conscious life, then it ought to be possible to construct testable predictions about the kind of dreams certain sorts of people should have in certain sorts of situations, to collect large numbers of examples, and to apply tests of statistical significance. This would be well worth doing; for my present argument I want to remark merely that neither Jung nor any of his immediate followers thought it worth doing.
In this case of course Jungian theory yields a testable hypothesis; it merely remains untested. In the case of the Collective Unconscious, however, we have not even a testable hypothesis. Jung asserts that the same symbols recur in dreams, in religious contexts, and in works of art, not only in cases where the symbols are the product of a socially transmitted cultural tradition, but also in cases where it is impossible that knowledge of the symbol should have been consciously acquired by the dreamer, He explains this recurrence by referring to a Collective Unconscious. But there are no predictions that we can deduce from the hypothesis of the Collective Unconscious other than the vague generalization that such symbols do and will recur, which is what the hypothesis was introduced to explain. Thus we are not dealing with a genuine explanation or hypothesis at all. But that this is so is also clear from the way in which Jungians refer to the Collective Unconscious. They treat it not as an explanatory hypothesis, but as an established fact, a fact moreover which can only be elucidated in contradictory utterances that violate the canons of logic.
The Collective Unconscious is spoken of by Jungians in much the way that the less precise and more enthusiastic mystics speak of deity; and since it is the home of the Jungian gods this is scarcely surprising. Asking for tests or criteria to enable us to decide between Jungian and Freudian views of the Unconscious is like asking for tests or criteria to decide between Protestant and Catholic views of the sacraments. But this last remark is perhaps fair neither to Freud nor to Christianity. For both Freudians and Christian theologians have insisted on bringing their beliefs before some criteria of truth: it is the Jungian recourse to the criterion of utility which marks its major break with the rationalist traditions of Western culture.
The Jungian break with these traditions is explicit. Jung dates the disorientation of modern man partly from the Christian break with paganism, partly from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. He is hostile to the products of the modern West in a way that is reminiscent of other irrationalisms. Jung has written elsewhere, “Whether we like it or not we are bound to ask: What is wrong with our art, that most delicate of all instruments for reflecting the national psyche? How are we to explain the blatantly pathological element in modern painting? Atonal music? The farreaching influence of Joyce’s fathomless Ulysses? Here we already have the germ of what was to become a political reality in Germany.”
Anyone who can see the influence of Ulysses as a precursor of Nazism could see anything anywhere. The completely uncontrolled absurdity of parts of Jung’s thought—the suggestion for example that “We have only to multiply the population of Switzerland by twenty to become a nation of eighty millions, and our public intelligence and morality would then automatically be divided by twenty in consequence of the devastating moral and psychic effects of living together in huge masses”—is then not accidental. It is a function of a will to believe—anything. The boy who once believed in childhood fantasies carries fantasy into adult life, clothes it with a new vocabulary adapted from Freud, and licenses first belief in belief itself, and then belief in all the creations of myth and dream. He cries that the cure for our failure wholly to emerge from the dark is to go back into it.
Another brilliantly clear exposition of Jungian psychology is given in Dr. Morris Philipson’s Outline of a Jungian Aesthetics. Dr. Philipson attempts both to be loyal to Jung and to be fully critical and scientific. The result is that his work lacks the magical quality of some Jungian writing (this is not a hostile criticism); and yet unfortunately he gets no closer to rendering Jung rational. He treats the existence of the Collective Unconscious as an hypothesis, for example, without ever considering the question of its testability. When he comes to explain the Jungian view of art, we are therefore inevitably conscious that the theory which is to explain art to us has yet to be given a specific content. Its credentials remain unclear. The hope is that the theory may become clearer through its applications. It is therefore worth saying that throughout the book the theory is never applied. No particular work of painting or literature is discussed for more than a line or two. Names are thrown about and the activity of “the” poet or “the” artist is discussed. It is perhaps only fair to add that Dr. Philipson is expert at sharp in-fighting with Freudian aestheticians.
Dr. Philipson’s book is thus additional confirmation, if any were needed, that Jung’s so-called theories belong not in the world of rational thought to which Dr. Philipson valiantly tries to introduce them, but in the half-world of theosophy, astrology, and the like. Since phrenology, however, none of these pseudo-sciences has attained the academic standing which Jung enjoyed. How and why that happened is a question that has not yet received an answer.