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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.

===== =====


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. Read the rest of this entry »

imgresMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally written for

J.M. Coetzee’s “Inner Workings,” collects some of the South African novelist’s recent criticism. Coetzee is a generous and sympathetic reader, which, in the end, is what one wants from a reviewer.  This post deals with Coetzee’s essay on Italo Svevo.  Like Tom Townsand in Metropolitan, I am sometimes content to get my literary opinions second hand.  Previously, I began Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno (Zeno’s Conscience), and liked very much what I read.  But, I set it aside at some point.  Coetzee is a fine reviewer; the quality of his work demonstrated by his ability to be fully satisfying on authors about whom one’s own knowledge is thin.

Svevo self-published his work, including Zeno; he was well-off through his wife, and could afford it.  Of Jewish origin, he basically hid this throughout his life.  Though born in Trieste Svevo went to boarding school in Germany, and never learned to write in “literary Italian.” Consequently, his prose has been criticized even by his admirers.  A rough contemporary of Freud, a typical Svevo scene has a man, “Z,” trying to impress four young ladies.  “You find yourself telling risque jokes; your jokes are met with frosty silence {…} You lean nonchalantly on your umbrella; the umbrella snaps in two; everyone laughs” (Coetzee, 1).  This may sound like a fairly normal bad dream, or even a bad day (when my jokes meet with frosty silence I have been known to resort more than once to “that’s funny to me,” which, in turn, is funny to me), but Coetzee sees something else: “Is it possible that both Freud and Svevo belong to an age when pipes and cigars and purses and umbrellas seemed pregnant with secret meaning, whereas to the present age a pipe is just a pipe?” (Coetzee, 2).  The sinuous in-joke here is delicious.

Svevo appears to have been wholly bourgeois, and to have cooperated with the fascist Mussolini government, even to the point of having received a medal from the fascists. After he married, he worked for his wife’s family’s company which was engaged in preventing barnacles from glomming onto ships.  But, he had his own doubts about his middle-class normality, and his first novel was titled in Italian “Un inetto,” which translates to “the ill-adapted one.”  “In Svevo’s eyes, Schopenhauer was the first philosopher to treat those afflicted with the handicap of reflective thought as a separate species, coexisting warily with healthy, unreflective types, who in Darwinian jargon might be called the fit” (Coetzee, 4).  One must admit that this picture, of the ordinary-looking businessman, the bland bourgeois, consumed by a surfeit of reflection, holds a degree of appeal.

Still, Svevo has been called out on his politics by his biographer, John Gatt-Rutter, who charges that Svevo’s support for Mussolini rested on “perfect bad faith” (Coetzee, 9). Interesting, Svevo seems to have recognized his own involvement, his own taintedness, while at the same time not making the effort of will necessary to change his station in life or political orientation.  Coetzee comments thusly: “From Socrates to Freud, Western ethical philosophy has subscribed to the Delphic Know yourself.  But what good does it do to know yourself if, taking your lead from Schopenhauer, you believe that character is founded on a substratum of will, and doubt that the will wants to change?” (Coetzee, 10).  If indeed, character finds its roots in will, at some point the excuses for not making a change begin to run a little thin.  But, of course, those living in glass houses should not throws stones, and I, for one, take no comfort in contemplating how I would have comported myself in 1920’s Italy were I, like Svevo, a relatively comfortable bourgeois working for an anti-barnacle firm.

Zeno, Svevo’s best-known book, came out when he was 62, again self-published.  The main character tries to quit smoking, but fears being creatively crippled if he does so (“Svevo’s corrosive yet curiously gay scepticism about whether we can improve ourselves”) (Coetzee, 11). Little by little, Svevo’s fame spread, in Italy and beyond. Although not fully versed in matters Svevovian, the name plays at least a small part in my own personal mythology.  In Anthony Powell‘s “A Dance to the Music of Time” the main character, Nick Jenkins, makes a faux pas by expressing a lack of sympathy for his commanding general’s favorite writer, Anthony Trollope. The scene unfolds:

“‘You’ve never found Trollope easy to read?’

‘No sir’.

He was clearly unable to credit my words.  This was an unhappy situation.  There was a long pause as he glared at me {…}

‘Whom do you like, if you don’t like Trollope?’

For the moment, I could not remember the name of a single novelist, good or bad, in the whole history of literature.  Who was there?  Then, slowly, a few admired figures came to mind–Choderlos de Laclos–Lermontov–Svevo….Somehow these did not have quite the right sound. The impression given was altogether too recondite, too eclectic” (Powell, The Military Philosophers, 46-47).

Nick ends up going with Balzac.  Were one to bring forth the above names in conversation, today, “recondite” and “eclectic” would be the least of the matter. Pretentious, unutterably highbrow, conversation-ending, these terms come to mind. It is, therefore, to Coetzee’s credit that he opens “Inner Workings” with such a recondite writer.

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