My life is a story of the self-realisation of the unconscious.
First line of the Prologue to Memories, Dreams, Reflections p. 17.
It is one thing to live your life … it’s another thing for your life to be a story.
A psychological story is no longer just a story: a particular sequence of events with a past, a present, and some sense of an anticipated future.
No! A psychological story begins with a disturbance of the ego, of the status quo, of how we expect life to be lived. The events that goes to make up the disturbance are, one way or another, transformed; transformed by an engagement with unconscious processes.
So, when Jung uses the words “my life is a story”, my hunch is that he is referring to something much more psychological than a ‘life narrative’ sort of story.
Jung credits Freud with having introduced the psychological question into psychiatry . Jung, is appears, showed a keen interest in the psychological question from his adolescence and, like Freud, found excitement in his professional work; asking specific questions of individual patients . Questions like: Why does this person have this particular idea, or make this particular evaluation, or be moved to act in this particular way and not another?
Psychiatry then and now, like psychology then and now, is espoused as a science of the controlled experiment, the general statement, and the repeatable measure. The quest for doing psychological work with individual cases that so sustained Jung (as it did Freud) throughout his professional life is a measure of how critical the psychological question was for him. While gaining knowledge in this way is not an alternative to the scientific method it does have a few lessons for us when used to complement our current passion for evidence-based techniques.
What is the psychological question?
In Memories, Dreams, Reflections Jung recount numerous experiences that shaped his mental life and his formal psychology. I will reflect on a couple of these events as a means of looking into this so-called psychological question.
First, there was his description of his mother’s “twofold nature … By day she was a loving mother, but at night she seemed uncanny … [and the character of the uncanny was that it was] Archaic and ruthless; ruthless as truth and nature” (67-8).
Second, his extensive account of how he experienced his No. 1 personality (living in the here and now, a person of action and decision making) and his No. 2 personality (inclined to depression, “… in him I was lifted beyond the here and now; in him I felt myself a single eye in a thousand-eyed universe, but incapable of moving so much as a pebble upon the earth” (94). After having tried to extinguish No. 2 towards the end of his school years Jung, in his university years, accepts that to his “great consolation – No. 2 was a reality” (107).
Third, there was his ‘research’ with his cousin, Hélène Preisweik. These séances with Hélène became the subject of his doctoral dissertation. I put ‘research’ in parenthesis because he failed to acknowledge his relationship to Hélène who was not only his cousin but who seemingly had somewhat of a crush on the young Jung. Jung thesis aimed to show that psychic powers, as evidenced in the séances, emerged from psychological states of mind and had nothing to do with the so-called supernatural. The Preisweik family identified themselves in the study and such sloppy research practice was inexcusable, even then.
Hoverer, the point that I want to make is that his work on his dissertation seemed to strengthen his conviction that experiencing multiple personalities was to be judged as the norm rather than the abnormal. And, perhaps more importantly, he argued that Hélène was on the path to becoming a more mature and stable personality, as represented by the second personality that was assuming a more definite role in her psyche. (Look for a quote in CW, 1, 3-88)
Finally, Jung saw the word association method, as he used it at the Burghölsli psychiatric hospital, to be offering empirical support for unconscious processes and offering a systematic way of studying the unconscious experimentally. My impression is that he became impatient with the limitations of the word association method especially when confronted with the challenges of psychological life. As Jung was his own most favoured patient, it was he himself that was his richest resource for theoretical concepts and practical methods.
The psychological question is, then: what credence, if any, needs to be given to a psychic reality; a reality that is of equal importance to the accepted perceptual reality? And, as a corollary: does ignoring this psychic reality create psychological problems for the individual? For Jung there was certainly the further entailment: does attention to this psychic reality foster the living of one’s person myth with a quest for wholeness, balance, and meaning.
Jung finds himself seriously disturbed
In 1909 Jung resigned from the Burghölsli, his relationship with Freud had come to an end, and he began (willingly and unwillingly) a journey into the “night sea.” During this dark night of the soul he experiences a series of terrifying hallucinatory visions that convinced him that he was on the verge of a psychotic breakdown.
This “night sea journey” (Jung in Davis, p. 79) lasted about five years (1913- 1918).
How come, during this period, Jung was able to incubate some of his most creative ideas? During this time Jung used methods that were essentially fashioned by himself and which addressed both imaginal (active imagination) and physical (hands-on) dimensions.
Jung made himself the object of serious investigation, an investigation that was the therapeutic necessity of confronting his own dark side. In Jung’s language it was a series of numerous “phenomena of assimilation” (Jung, 1975, p. 827), its purpose being to assimilate into consciousness this strange and confusing experience thrown up by his unconscious processes.
Jung appears to have known that he was in the middle of a life crisis and under the influence of an extraordinary array of psychic events. Calling them hallucinations is just too one sided and diminishes the archetypal nature of images, and the accompanying emotional turmoil, that were invading his conscious life.
What was it like for Jung?
Using the word association method Jung was the scientist in his laboratory. He was in charge of the procedures and was thrilled by what he found; empirical evidence for psychological complexes. During the 1913 to 1917 period he became the experiment, subject, and experimenter. In his own words “devoted attention to the unconscious” and became “conscious of my Self/myself through my occupation” (Jung quoted in Bair, p. 242). I particularly like Deirdre Bair’s handling of this period in Jung’s life which she has titled “My Self/Myself.” I read it as a careful exploration of all the biographical sources that she could get her hands on and without any intention of making Jung out to be either mystic or psychotic.
There is no doubt that Jung felt a victim of his psychic invasions, initially feeling a sense of “weakness” of character. He had no theoretical framework through which he could understand them and he certainly didn’t wish to use any interpretation based on Feud’s work. So, eventually, he gives up trying and tells himself “just to wait, [to] keep on living and watch the fantasies” (Jung quoted in Bair, p. 243). However, soon, it seems, he is doing more than just watching he is working to “recover the emotional tone” of much earlier experiences and, as with the association experiments, he watched for correspondences that might arise. At the same time, he throws himself in the intellectual, emotional, and physical arms of Toni Wolff; a complex relationship in every sense of the word.
There is a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that captures the psychological nature of Jung’s night-sea-journey experience:
THE MAN WATCHING
Translated by Robert Bly
I can tell you by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is serious and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we could let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
Here Rilke has created a ‘story’ linking the biblical account in Genesis of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel … all night long … with his own experience of wrestling with his psyche; and finally, being open to being led by his psyche as if it had its own purpose.
Morris West wrote an entire novel, The World is Made of Glass (1983), with the relationship of Jung and Toni Wolff as one of its major themes. West and Jung both experienced a ‘crack-up’ the raw material of which needed to be confronted. Both have a woman as central figure and both, in very different ways, use their imaginal life to express their inherent psychological drama. Jung engages with his anima and West credits his second marriage to Joy West as the catalyst for the change that freed him to be himself (see Confoy, p. 132; 302).
Jung painstakingly allows himself to be taught: from the disturbance to the image, and from the image to the mythological correspondence. Having used the process fruitfully on himself he begins to use it as a technique with his patients.
West takes as his starting point a few lines from a very incomplete case reported in Memories, Dreams, Reflections:
A lady came to my office. She refused to give her name, said it did not matter, since she wished to have only the one consultation … What she had to communicate to me was a confession; some twenty years ago she had committed a murder out of jealousy (p. 143).
West creates a double narrative, that of Magda (the lady in question) and that of Jung. It is an imaginative account of a double madness in which both, for differing reasons, are being taken over by waves of ungovernable emotions: Magda gives herself over to the unconscious forces in a Faustian deal with “terms that would be non-negotiable and eternal” (West, p. 57). Jung consciously engages with his un-willed material writing down his dream images, his feelings, his desires, and shares all with Toni Wolff as his ‘assistant.’ The fulcrum on which the plot turns is Magda’s courage to address the division in her inner world … her insanity and her sexual obsessions. West uses the drama as a mirror for Jung to address his courage to work on the same themes and for West to hammer out a resolution to his own ‘psychic impotence’ (West quoted in Confey, p.303).
West was 67 year old when he wrote The World is Made of Glass and he places Jung’s age as 39 years. West believed that he and Jung had a lot in common both needing to face their demons and make new and life-changing decisions. And both credited identification with what they saw as feminine aspects of soul as the key in their search for integrity of soul ... the courage to follow their respective personal myths.
Here we have a story-of-a-story of the self-realisation of the unconscious. Both exhibit the art of the imagination at work: that extraordinary ability the we have as humans to do story-making. Ability and psychological necessity I would say. A psychological life is a storied-life: a lived-story that links particular historical events with what we make of them. Psychologically, it would seem, we need to imagine into these events, dream into them, in order for them to be animated with meaning. Our imagining links us with our ancient cultural stories: mythologies and archetypal images. The imaginal or psychological life cannot be trivialised as just a fantasy life; rather, it is the mundane transformed, transformed by a descent into the underworld.
Story-making and the making of psychological life (a psychological story)
There is a story in Greek mythology, we know it as the ‘labours of Hercules.’
It is a story that helps us understand the difference between the important tasks of daily living and the critical task of the inner world ... the world of soul … the world in which a psychological story is created.
Hercules is loved throughout our Western culture for his particular ability to ‘get on’ in life. He always got the job done!
Making the most of daily living is, itself, a Herculean task!
However, as happens, Hercules messed up. As a consequence of offending the goddess Hera, it was demanded of Hercules that he successfully complete twelve exceedingly demanding tasks
- He strangled a huge lion with his hands
- He slaughtered the twelve-headed hydra that was ravaging the countryside
- He went on to do battle with the famous Cretan bull
- And so, on and on it went.
Hercules’ twelfth exploit was to bring back Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog, which guards the entry to the under-world.
What is so different about this twelfth task was that he was not able to use any of his skills and armaments that had proved so successful in the above-world: his bow and arrow, his slingshot, his sword, even his hands.
Of course he initially believed them to be useful and tested each of them against each under-world phantom believing that they were the same sort of reality as found in the above-world.
Hercules’ muscular talents were useless in the underworld.
Sword-waving Hercules had to unlearn the ways of the above-world in order to learn the much more subtle ways of the under-world.
For it seems, following the ancient texts, that in the realm of the ‘dead,’ only gentle wrestling and stone throwing was of any avail.
Hercules so wanted to shed blood but, instead, was challenged to a ghostly wrestle.
The 'gentle wrestling' is a metaphor for the struggles inherent in depth psychology:
- The vulnerability of not knowing answers
- The trusting attitude of travelling with an other into the unknown
- The unwavering belief that this journey of transformation is what’s necessary
for this soul’s soul-making.
I hope that you can feel the contrast between what works in the above-world and what works in the under-world.
When it comes to being an okay performer in daily living, the above-world, we need to be able to:
- Construct a good-enough story of how this and that hangs together, and
- Express this story in some or other public manner.
On those much rarer occasions when the task is to generate a psychological story which has as its plot a journey into the under-world, into the depths of psyche, then totally other skills are required
... just as was the case for our hero Hercules.
An even earlier mythic story come from the ancient land of Sumer, modern-day Iraq.
It is the story of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth.
For our purposes, the story begins with a description of how order was brought into the world, and how nature was understood for its full erotic splendour.
Inanna was queen of this worldly domain.
She was the keeper of order, the guardian of wisdom.
She was both high priest and possessor of all earthly power.
It then comes about that, at the height of her strength as queen of heaven and earth, Innana opened her ear to the Great Below.
She abandons heaven and earth to descend to the underworld.
Again, as a metaphor for psychological transformation, Innana has attained all the skills necessary for her day-to-day living. She is very good at what she does in the above world.
At a certain moment in her life, however, she finds that she has to abandon her accustomed position, her position of strength, and descend to the unknown, to the underworld.
Inanna begins her journey in possession of all the symbols of her high status:
- She carries with her the wisdom of the ages
- She wears the crown of authority
- Around her neck she wears small lapis beads
- Her body is wrapped with the royal robe
- On her chest she wears the breastplate of power
- On her wrist she wears the gold ring
- In her hands she carries the lapis measuring rod and line.
At the threshold of the underworld, Innana has to declare why she wishes to enter.
It’s because of my older sister, Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld.
Her husband has died and I have come to witness the funeral rites.
Once given permission to enter, the seven gates of the underworld are unbolted, one by one.
As the first gate Inanna has the crown removed from her head
At the second gate the small lapis beads were removed from her neck
And so it goes on until at the seventh gate the royal robe is removed from her body.
Ereshkigal, queen of the under-word, leaves her with nothing.
In fact, less than nothing:
Inanna was turned into a corpse,
A piece of rotting meat,
And was hug from a hook on the wall.
To cut the story terribly short, Innana’s transformation begins with the dirt beneath her fingernails, which come into life, as a creature neither male nor female.
Eventually, Innana return to the above-world with the gift of mystery, what I would call the gift of using imagination creatively and transformatively.
In conclusion, these two ancient and mythic stories invite us to consider the following:
As story tellers of life, we have two jobs to do. Most often, the construction of a life narrative will demand an adequate level of above-world competence. Every so often, however, maybe one time out of every twelve, the possibility exists, and it will appear in the manner of an invitation, to journey into the under-world.
Here the above-world skills do not work. We can be sure of that!
Here one is stripped of above-world knowledge and is, as it were, hung like a piece of rotting meat from a hook on the wall.
The possibility of personal transformation is there and the work is demanding as it needs to be.
Today, it is enough to know that the possibility is real and at hand.
Bair, D. (2003). Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown
Confoy, M. (2005). Morris West: Literary Maverick. Milton, QLD: Wiley.
Davis, R. H. (2003). Jung, Freud, and Hillman: Three Depth Psychologists in Context. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Jung, C. G. (1960). A review of the complex theory. In R. F. C. Hull (Trans.),The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Bollingen Series XX (Vol. 8, pp. 139-158. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press. (Original work published in 1934)
Jung, C. G. (1975). Address at the Presentation of the Jung Codex. In R. F. C. Hull (Trans.),The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Bollingen Series XX (Vol. 15, pp. 826-829). Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press. (Original talk given in 1953)
Jung, C. G. (1983). Memories, Dreams, Reflections ( A. Jaffé, Ed., and R. Winston & C. Winston, Trans.). London: Fountana. (Original work published in 1961)
West, M. (1983). The World is Made of Glass. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Binswanger quoted in Bair, 2003, p. 109.
The traditional word ‘patient’ (rather than ‘client’) has been retained throughout the text in order to emphasis that a deep and on-going therapeutic relationship is being discussed and not brief counselling.