maj01Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Note: This post originally published at, and introduces our serial investigation of the works of Carl Jung.


Toward the end of his life on earth, Carl Jung worked with Aniela Jaffe on a semi-autobiography titled, in English, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” (MDR).  While the exact nature of the origins of the text continues to be a matter of controversy (Shamdasani, 22-38), this work is, by any standard, one of the most remarkable works of self-reflection on record.  As Jung’s work has seduced me, once more, into an extended contemplation of telos as a universal governing principle, and forced me to ask hitherto avoided questions about the nature and possibility of free will, it is only appropriate that we begin with the end, namely the second to last page of MDR, written when Jung was in his mid-80’s.

Looking back over the course of his life, Jung writes/ dictates as follows:
“A creative person has little power over his own life.  He is not free.  He is captive and driven by his own daimon.  ‘Shamefully, a power wrests away the heart from us,/ For the Heavenly Ones each demand sacrifice;/ But if it should be withheld/ Never has that led to good,’ says Holderlin.  This lack of freedom has been a great sorrow to me.  Often I felt as if I were on a battlefield, saying, ‘Now you have fallen, my good comrade, but I must go on.’  For ‘shamefully a power wrests the heart from us.’  I am fond of you, indeed I love you, but I cannot stay.  There is something heart-rending about that.  And I myself am the victim; I cannot stay.  But the daimon manages things so that one comes through, and blessed inconsistency sees to it that in flagrant contrast to my ‘disloyalty’ I can keep faith in unsuspected measure” (MDR, 357).

Here, Jung’s daimon is also his muse, a fickle yet demanding goddess, possessed of little mercy.  Here too we see Jung playing with telos, and also recognizing that creative work never comes without a price.  And yet, Jung is not railing against his fate–while apparent disloyalty, inconstancy, faithlessness, restlessness, and driven arrogance may have plagued his personal relationships, Jung hove true to his inner compass in a manner and to a degree which would have permanently flung most mortals far the other side of sanity, fellowship, and comprehensibility.  When Jung writes that “I can keep faith in unsuspected measure” he is referencing the overarching centrality of intuition as a guide to his life’s work, and building on forty years of reflection on the central orienting elements of personality.  The relentlessness and courage of his six decades of work, even as he came increasingly to fear for the reception of his ideas (pace Answer to Job), attests to his faith, and to his  larger constancy, even as from a smaller bore perspective his alleged lack of intellectual coherence and questionable allegiance to science as commonly understood has led lesser minds to accuse Jung of prophecy, shamanism, and outright oddness (cf Shamdasani, 83).  In order to counteract such limited understandings of Jung, understandings based almost certainly on shallow or incomplete readings of the Collected Works, it behooves us to take an extended look at the textual evidence.  This textual evidence, as we shall see, while voluminous, circular, and even repetitive, signifies in the final judgment nothing short of the most remarkable, daring, and far-reaching bodies of work to issue forth from a single human intelligence since Augustine.  It is our pleasure to place ourselves in the service of this intelligence, to reflect, if even in the smallest way, a sliver of the numinous with which Jung wrestled throughout his life, as Job wrestled with his angel.

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One who has no god, as he walks along the street/ Headache envelops him like a garment.

(Cuneiform tablet, late 2nd millennium B.C.  Cited in Jaynes, 225)

An idea is something you have.  An ideology is something that has you.

Morris Breman

It is well known that older people tend toward one of two poles in their attitude toward certainty, and that the degree of apparent confidence with which those in the second half of life hold forth on subjects to which they claim authority or expertise is directly related to the degree to which they suffer from an inflated, runaway, usurping ego.  On the one hand the dogmatists, those in whom opinion has ossified into ideology, whose “conversation” is always monologue ascendant.  On the other hand, those at least somewhat mellowed by time, those who have come face to face with their own limitations, whose ego has been able to absorb the blows apportioned by father time, and to grin in the face of impotence (cf Slater, 115).

There are certain professions, however, where egocentricity in the form of professed certainty is positively rewarded, where the fawning of acolytes, the plaudits of the mass media, and the material rewards issued forth from committees and councils depend in large part on stating and holding a single position, and defending such position against all comers.  The expert industry is ever at work, animated by the simple fact that very few people actually have any real idea of what they should be doing, of what the “truth” is in a given situation, or, least of all, on what basis to make a decision.  When Julian Jaynes theorizes that for most of human history the right brain hallucinated the voices of gods which were then interpreted as commands in moments of stress and decision, and that when the right brain began to cease its projections societies then turned to augury in all its various manifestations in order to simply decide, we are given a hint as to the centrality of authorized claims of certainty in the workings of human organizations (cf Jaynes, 321).

The early history of modern psychology is dominated, to this day, by two great figures, Freud and Jung.  Freud was Jung’s elder, and looked to Jung to carry on his work, to take up the mantle of his successor.  Jung, for reasons which we will explore at a later date, was unable in good conscience to do so, essentially because Freud insisted that his theory be treated as dogma, as unassailable fact.  As Jung recounts in the section on Freud in Memories, Dreams and Reflections,

I can still vividly recall how Freud said to me, ‘My dear Jung, promise me never to abandon the sexual theory.  That is the most essential thing of all.  You see, we must make a dogma of it, an unshakable bulwark.’ (…) In some astonishment I asked him, ‘A bulwark against what?’  To which he replied, ‘Against the black tide of mud’–and here he hesitated for a moment, then added–‘of occultism.’  First of all, it was the words ‘bulwark’ and ‘dogma’ that alarmed me, for a dogma (…) is set up only when the aim is to suppress doubts once and for all.  But that no longer has anything to do with scientific judgment; only with a personal power drive (MDR, 150).

The relationship between the two men never recovered, and Jung would from this point go his own way, even as he was subsequently slandered by Freud and his followers with charges of anti-Semitism, heresy, and, indeed, occultism.  Essentially, then, Freud, once he had hit upon an animating set of ideas, saw it as his job to defend said ideas against doubt, both that of others and that of himself.  Thus, Freud, for all his genius, in later life fell into defensiveness, and defensiveness, when extended over a period of years, leads only to dessication.  The works that he did produce toward the end of his life which attempted to address issues of myth and meaning raised by Jung are generally considered to be unconvincing, even slapdash, and perhaps even a little desperate (cf Storr, 106-110).

Jung’s life and work stands in stark contrast to Freud’s, and indeed to the common prevalence of ideology in the later stages of human life, primarily in its radical openness, in his willingness to confess that he knows nothing.  This position is stated in language so moving, so forthright, and so laden with an appreciation of the numinousity and mystery attendant on the encounter of the human intellect with the broader cosmos which it inhabits, and perhaps informs, that the reader can scarcely believe that the aging scientist could summon the humility to exit the stage with a confession so radically uncertain, and yet so full of faith.  The last two pages of his life, then, read thusly:

I am astonished, disappointed, pleased with myself.  I am distressed, depressed, rapturous.  I am all these things at once, and cannot add up the sum.  I am incapable of determining ultimate worth or worthlessness; I have no judgment about myself and my life.  There is nothing I am quite sure about.  I have no definite convictions–not about anything, really.  I know only that I was born and exist, and it seems to me that I have been carried along.  I exist on the foundations of something I do not know.  In spite of all uncertainties, I feel a solidity underlying all existence and a continuity in my mode of being.

The world into which we are born is brutal and cruel, and at the same time of divine beauty.  Which element we think outweighs the other, whether meaninglessness or meaning, is a matter of temperament.  If meaninglessness were absolutely preponderant, the meaningfulness of life would vanish to an increasing degree with each step in our development.  But that is–or seems to me–not the case.  Life is–of has–meaning and meaninglessness.  I cherish the anxious hope that meaning will preponderate and win the battle (MDR, 358-359).

For Jung, the founder of analytic philosophy, one time disciple of Freud, and originator of a whole host of terms and concepts in common usage, to close the last chapter of his life by writing “there is nothing I am quite sure about.  I have no definite convictions–not about anything, really,” is, I suggest, startling.  Coming on the heels, as it does, of twenty volumes of his Collected Works, of millions and millions of words committed to print, and a life which animated both friend and foe alike to believe that he was, or should have been, in the business of prophecy and the establishment of his own religion, this statement, this closing on the simple, moving, “anxious hope” for meaning, bears closer scrutiny.  It is the intention of Jungian Intimations to retrace the steps which led to Jung, in his late 80’s, confessing to such a curious blend of doubt and faith, and to give some suggestions for what this blend may mean for those of us who stagger on, searching for the blurry outlines of his footfalls, at once craving and fearing the appearance of the voice of the gods in our ear.