15683455_b1fc405d34Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post was originally published at jungianintimations.wordpress.com.

Volume I of Jung’s Collected Works is titled Psychiatric Studies, and begins with his dissertation, “On the Psychology and Pathology of the So-Called Occult Phenomena.”  The editor’s preface to Volume I characterizes the dissertation as reflecting “simple descriptive research,” while acknowledging that many of Jung’s later concerns are foreshadowed herein (vi). In our posts on Volume I we shall attempt to draw out some of these foreshadowings, while also taking seriously this most “scientific” of the phases of Jung’s career and work.

It is of course highly significant that occult phenomena signify in Jung’s first major published work, as Jung’s reputation, for better or worse, is to this day closely linked with the occult, mysticism, astrology, post-material synchronicity, and the unconscious archetype. That Jung refers to “the so-called occult phenomena” here is suggestive, on its face, of at least some measure of empirical leaning in the young Jung.  As we shall see in later posts, Jung waged a decades-long internal battle to preserve his belief in himself as a man of science, rather than an artist, and the question of whether he was primarily a scientist or an artist would play a significant role in his mid-life crisis which set in during the decade of the 1910s.  It is interesting to note here that Freud also held fast to the label of “scientist,” even as critics such as Roger Brown have suggested that he surrendered all claims to the title as early as 1896 (Storr, 24).

It is well known that Jung’s early years were suffused with religion and spiritualism, with several members on both sides of his extended family being parsons (MDR 42), and from his earliest writings, however much he clung to the idea of himself as an empiricist (understood in its more typically narrow sense), Jung’s interest in the faint intimations of the “other world,” in the liminal zone between normal experience and those experiences or states which stray over the borderline of normal consciousness and everyday apprehension and into the dark underbelly of the unconscious, betrays the awestruck and bemused metaphysical wanderer who at seven would sit on a stone and wonder “Am I the one who is sitting on the stone, or am I the stone on which he is sitting?” (MDR, 20).

“Liminality” is defined nicely by Wikipedia as “a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective state, conscious or unconscious, of being on the ‘threshold’ of or between two different existential planes” (Wikipedia, “Liminality,) and from the first paragraph of “On the Psychology and Pathology of the So-Called Occult Phenomena,” we can see Jung’s interest in liminality at play:

“In that wide domain of psychopathic inferiority from which science has marked off the clinical pictures of epilepsy, hysteria, and neurasthenia, we find scattered observations on certain rare states of consciousness as to whose meaning the authors are not yet agreed.  These observations crop us sporadically in the literature on narcolepsy, lethargy, automatisme, ambulatoire, periodic amnesia, double consciousness, somnambulism, pathological dreaminess, pathological lying, etc.” (Collected Works Vol. I, 3).

The author makes no claims to being a psychologist or to having any detailed empirical knowledge of the difference between automatisme and somnambulism, but briefly, for the sake of clarity, epilepsy refers to an overly active electrical circuit in the brain which causes seizures, neurasthenia is an outdated term that referred to deep exhaustion, what Jung and Freud referred to as hysteria we would more probably call neurosis, narcolepsy is a threshold state between sleep and waking which may include hallucinations,  automatisme, ambulatoire , and somnambulism, as far as I can make out, all refer to sleepwalking or other actions taking while one is technically asleep.  Pathological dreaminess appears to be a coinage of Jung’s own, and pathological lying is best understood to be a state where one lies repeatedly with no motive force, no hope for, or anticipation of, gain.

What all these mental states have in common is a significant lack of control which those so afflicted have over their symptoms.  Indeed, in all of the above cases it can fruitfully be asked “who or what is in control of our psychological processes?”  This is precisely the question that certain childhood experiences forced Jung to ask himself.  As recounted in MDR, at a very early age Jung had experienced the force of unbidden subterranean psychic contents which pushed their way to the surface of his consciousness.  At the age of three, Jung dreamed of an “ithyphallically enthroned” ritual phallus entombed underground behind a thick green curtain.  The ritual phallus “was made of skin and naked flesh, and on top there was something like a rounded head with no face and no hair.  On the very top of the head was a single eye, gazing motionlessly upward” (MDR, 11-12).  The young Jung equated this ritual phallus with “a subterranean God ‘not to be named'” as well as with the Jesuits, whom at that point he believed feasted on human flesh (MDR, 12).

Looking back from late middle age, Jung writes that the symbolically freighted symbolism of such a dream is far beyond what any child’s psyche would be able to produce without some kind of blueprint.  His conclusion was that someone or something was already speaking with or through his mind:

“It {became} clear to me how exceedingly unchildlike, how sophisticated, and oversophisticated was the thought that had begun to break through into consciousness {…} Who was it speaking in me?  Whose mind had devised them?  What kind of superior intelligence was at work? {…} Who talked of problems far beyond my knowledge?  Who brought the Above and Below together and laid the foundation for everything that was to fill the second half of my life with stormiest passion?  Who but that great alien guest who came both from above and from below?” (MDR, 14-15).

Although these ruminations are retrospective, it is fairly clear that the inner autobiographical events that Jung highlights in MDR lay the ground work for the young scientist’s interest in psychic liminality in all its manifestations.  While the early studies mostly center upon the symptomatology of young, hysterical women, Jung’s early efforts to exteriorize his investigations would eventually give way to a deeper probing of his own levels of consciousness.  Indeed, the bulk of Jung’s mature, original work draws directly from his own borderline experiences, half-induced and half-received, during and after the outbreak of the First World War.

Therefore, while the early writings of Jung may with some justice be described as “simple descriptive research,” his choice of subjects and range or interests immediately plunges us into deep metaphysical waters, as Jung wrestles with questions such as where conscious control over the psyche ends, what exists or pertains beyond this control, and who or what is exerting itself when the formerly and apparently autonomous psyche cracks and the great unknown, the serpent in the garden, the siren on the farther shore, the vast propulsive other, or the slime of the deep makes manifest its eternal will to power.