Desire, Compulsion … and Jung
How is it that one always fails in speaking of
what one loves? ""
A prominent author and theorist of the mind, such as Carl Jung, doesn’t just exist: they are given shape by current practitioners such as myself, people at the workbench of the psychological life. So, now I intend to give shape to Jung’s work on desire and compulsion.
In my late adolescence I had a burning desire to imitate a couple of superstars of the spiritual life and, what’s more, for a few years I acted on this desire.
The first was the Spanish mystic Teresa of Ávila. Her biographer describes a time in her latter life when “although she was slowly wasting away, [Theresa] tormented herself with the most painful whips, frequently rubbed herself with fresh stinging nettles, and even rolled about naked in thorns.”
This was impressive stuff for a young mind!
And then there was Clare of Assisi (great friend of Francis of Assisi) who “tore apart the alabaster container of her body with a whip for forty-two years, and from her wounds there arose heavenly odours that filled the church.”
Here you get a strong taste of desire gone wild or is it more of a necessary compulsion? We can only guess.
What I learned from these superstars of the spiritual life was that their craving for the absolute had an ambivalent sensuous quality about it. While they believed that their bodies needed to be shaped like a piece of wood, their imaginations were given over to eros.
The Greek scholar and poet, Anne Carson, says that it was the poet Sappho who first called the god Eros ‘bittersweet’ (Carson, 1986). Carson reminds us that eros denotes ‘want,’ ‘lack,’ ‘desire for what is missing’. Taking Sappho as her inspiration, Carson amplifies the experience of eros as a dynamic of ambivalent emotion. Eros is more than a name for a Greek god who typifies the essential bittersweet of an emotion, eros, desire moves us. Eros is a verb.
In a very Freudian sense, all desire is shaped by the experience of loss. And especially, the loss of certainty: certainty of language to express the complexity of our experience, the loss of self as a substantial entity, the loss of belief in truth as an absolute.
Again, following Freud, the experience of consciousness is erotic to the core. Its reach (its desire) always exceeds its grasp (of concrete objects). In the Sappho poem, “… Sappho begins with a sweet apple and ends in infinite hunger” (Carson, p. 29).
While we can convincingly talk about satisfying the desire of say, hunger and thirst, the desire that shapes our imagination seeks no satisfaction. In fact, the space that is experienced - as an absence - must be maintained or desire ends.
The real subject of the Sappho love poem is not the human subject but the empty space that brings forth the desire. It is the presence of want that awakens in the protagonist of the poem a nostalgia for wholeness.
And so it is with our imagination, certainly I never want to be free of my impossible longings and improbable passions. Surely, for us humans, it is our fantasy, our imaginings that awaken the senses.
The necessity of a desire to believe
Sigmund Freund, in the second half of his life, and almost as a footnote to his vigorous determinists beliefs, asserted that … while belief in a religion didn’t stack up in his thinking “the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above [a view of life] that expresses a need to believe. (Civilisation and its Discontents, 1930)
Freud was asserting, reluctantly, that
we humans have an inherent desire, a need, to believe.
Archetypal desire & compulsion
How better to illustrate this archetypal desire than by referring to the Cinderella story. We all know this story but as is true with any cultural or so-called fairy story there is a message in the bottle. A psychological story, to be truly psychological, has both an archetypal structure and an archetypal message.
Cinderella and her three mothers
The structure is simple: the archetypal forces are, by nature, bi-polar. At one pole there is the resentful stepmother: the mother who denies each and every wish expressed by our Cinderella. This so-called mother is an archetypal force representing all those desire–denying qualities in our lived experience.
At the other pole there is the force of the all-assenting godmother: every desire that Cinderella can imagine will be satisfied. Oh for such a force in our lives! How we so want it to be true.
Both ‘mothers’ exist in the archetypal world. They represent totalities, absolutes. And, as such, they are experienced as a compulsion. Desires and compulsions, both personal and archetypal, are constituents of everybody’s psyche, or psychological soul, or inner life. We try not to construct them as an enemy of our wellbeing. How could they be if they, in part, constitute our very soul?
In our everyday life we try to avoid falling victim of either polarity, either totality.
Jung would say that if we are not conscious of this particular force acting in our day-to-day life then the archetype will possess us (much as good or evil spirits might have in earlier times). When we are possessed, as it were, we are putty in the hands of the compulsion (whether it be gambling, a drug, a religion, porn, Facebook).
So, an archetypal force is compulsive when unconscious … it has us, it possesses us. It drives us toward an insatiable goal precisely because the goal possesses an absolute quality. One could even say, a divine quality.
To complete our Cinderella story: the middle path, the path of consciousness, is the way of the third mother: the birth mother, as it were, that has to be brought forth, given birth to, each and every day.
This real mother has to be made real. Her reality needs to be first acknowledged and then accepted. Occasionally, we may even celebrate her reality. As James Hillman would say: this is the business of soul making.
For a more male image there is the joker: the playing card that everyone wants because it can be turned into any card in the pack depending on needs of the circumstances. Yet the reality is that we can only, psychologically speaking, work with the exact and limiting cards that we have in our hand at that particular time, the cards that life has dealt us.
Scheherazade and The Thousand and One Nights
To continue with the trope of the fairy story and my use of the story to shed light on the our experiences of archetypal forces that present themselves at the very core of our being; let’s explore the ancient account of the most famous of storytellers: Scheherazade.
Scheherazade is one of the great cultural stories of love and loss, will and desire.
Scheherazade, in her total confidence (hubris) as a storyteller, is an extreme, a particular pole of the archetypal force: betrayal at one end and unconditional love at the other. In a psychological sense, a sense of soul making, love and betrayal are a necessary unity. Both are extreme, both constitute madness. Opposite Scheherazade is the Sultan: he who was betrayed in love and is now driven murderously to seek his revenge.
The book, The Thousand and One Nights, opens with the account of the visit of the sultan’s brother, Shahzaman, who is grieved at having been forced to execute his wife for unfaithfulness having discovered her in flagrante delicto with the palace cook. The Sultan then discovers that his own wife, the Sultana, has been engaging in orgies alongside her serving maids, with several black slaves disguised in women’s dress.
Like every good story, the detail is exquisite.
The sultan orders his vizier to execute all of them. Concluding in his grief that henceforth no woman can ever be trusted, he then adopts a brutal plan to marry a new wife every night and having slept with her, order the vizier to execute her at dawn each morning before she has the chance to make the Sultan again a cuckold.
This murderous act he continues each night and day until hundreds of brides have met their death and the kingdom is thrown into a universal horrified grief. Finally, the vizier’s own daughter, Scheherazade, asks her father, the vizier, to marry her to the King, come what may.
Over her father’s objection she marries the Sultan, sleeps with him, and with her expected execution looming, calls for her sister Dunyazade to join them in their last hours before daybreak.
Dunyazade then asks Scheherezade to entertain the King and herself with her lively stories, and she does so, so entrancing the King with the beginning tale, cut short in a “cliff hanger” pause before its ending, such that the King postpones her execution until the next night so that he can hear the continuation of the tale.
With this “sword of Damocles” hanging over her head, Scheherezade then continues in the same way for each of the succeeding thousand nights, so entrancing the King and leaving him desirous of the continuation of the stories, which proliferate endlessly such that her execution is continually deferred.
Each polarity of the archetypal force is, as I have said, a totality, an absolute. When one is caught in an archetype one is either mad or dead to the world.
To use a Christian metaphor: one doesn’t come down from the cross, alive.
The Jungian insight is just as it was with the Cinderella story: my psychological task is to make meaning, each and every day. The task: to bring forth love, to make it happen in some manner or other, and to present it to the world at large. By the world I mean some small and insignificant aspect of our world. Here we are introduced to a psychological meaning of the verb: to make love. Not to find it as if it exists out there somewhere but to make it happen.
To trust that Scheherezade will turn up and save the day or that the sultan will just disappear are both unrealistic. Neither has foundation in the reality of daily living.
Archetype and the divine
To do justice to Jung and, I contend, to our own lived experience, I need to speak of the tricky relationship that holds together the notions of the archetype and the experience of the divine.
Jung turned to mytho-poetic imagery to express this relationship. So in the spirit of Jung I offer the following amplification of the opening words of St John’s Gospel:
In the beginning was desire, and desire was with God, and desire was God.
Had Christianity been more attentive to desire and less attentive to a punitive mindset then we might have better psychological resources at our disposal.
In a very real manner, our experience of desire is our experience of the divine. Here I purposely emphasise the experience of desire.
What did Jung mean when he uses the word divine? My interpretation of his meaning is that he wanted to shift the focus of out attention from the without to the within.
My emphasis of bringing forth (from within) is designed to stress the verb of divine making, or soul making, rather than a verb which sounds like the divine has been lost and needs to found, or found again. No, our capacity of consciousness is plenty enough to enable us to walk the middle path by laying it down as we walk it.
For Carl Jung, daily life was never going to be a sentimental narrative. You know the sort: finding the Holy Grail, finding one’s true destiny, partner, whatever. Perhaps we need to believe in a Holy Grail as if it existed; and thus to draw down energy from the belief. In this manner it is a psychological truth and not a literal one.
But, we also know that most of us have a desire for precisely such a sentimental narrative … at least if it has a happy ending it will do. We will even put up with a good-enough ending as long as the narrative remains intact.
No, I see in Jung’s writings a concurrence with the Spanish mystic, John of the Cross: first there is a dark night of the senses and if that’s not enough, then come the dark night of the soul.
All of which means, more or less, that the actual living of life and the unending task of bringing forth the divine has the quality of a tragedy. How could it be otherwise?
What our imagination desires is so great but our capacity to bring it forth is so limited … a tragedy indeed!
Had Jung been alive to read Angela Carter’s insightful comments on the sexual act I can image his head nodding in agreement. Here is Angela:
“We do not go to bed in simple pairs: even if we choose not to refer to them, we still drag there with us the cultural impedimenta of our social class, our parents’ lives, our bank balances, our sexual and emotional expectations, our unique biographies – all the bits and pieces of our unique existences.” (The Sadeian Woman, 1979, Virago Press)
These are the cards we are dealt.
So much for what our imagination can conjure up.
Still, Jung would have needed to add the archetypal dimension and insist that we need to want our sex to be on the side of wonderment, of heavenly grace. Or, on the opposite archetypal pole: we want union with the powers of darkness.
The ambiguous nature of desire is not the problem. We create the problem when we believe that we should be living in the archetypal realm and not in the realm of life.
Desire and the soul
Desire makes a fool of all of us!
But the Jungian tradition, especially in the hands of James Hillman, wants to say something much more powerful. Hillman sees the story of Eros and Psyche as the primary myth of psychoanalysis. Eros, the wild son of Aphrodite brings to our psyche, our soul, the promise of pleasure and the many occasions for suffering.
How does Eros lead to soul making? How is it that Eros, the impossibility of archetypal love, lead to what the Jungians call interiorising?
The soul, tortured by love, as the ancient story illustrates, is in a process of initiation … initiation into soul making. The soul made visible by the torments of love: the soul’s work, Psyche’s tasks.
In Jung’s mind, the divine is, somehow, truthful; and … a world full of angels and devils. How is that for ambiguity?
We are creatures of desires, of longings … some of which, maybe most of which, we are unaware.
Desire, compulsion and psychotherapy
Arguably, desire is the driving force of psychodynamic psychotherapy (Analytical psychology). And compulsions underlie the daily tragedy that brings us into psychotherapy. Desires are what we love to show off to the world: this is what makes us tick; these are our motivating forces; and so on. Compulsions we keep hidden. We’re embarrassed by their tackiness.
“In his latter years, Jung spent more and more time at his private retreat on the shores in the rural town of Bollingen. There he lived simply in a stone house he had built himself. His principal hobby during those last years was stone carving, at which he became quite adept. Accordingly, left behind in the Bollingen retreat is a symbolic record, executed in stone, of some of Jung’s preoccupations during his old age. Among these there is a stone triptych on the subject of the ‘anima.’ The initial panel shows a bear bending down, its nose nudging a ball in front of it. The inscription reads, ‘Russia gets the ball rolling’.
It is a sad last testament to Sabina Spielrein that even in a stone monument in her honor she could not be named” (Kerr, p. 507).
Such was Jung’s emotionally restricted life that he had denied his anima relationship with Sabina to Freud; he had disparaged Sabina herself in his letters to her, reducing her to just a character in his journey through the unconscious.
Now that we have all seen David Cronenberg’s film A Dangerous Method (2012) it is impossible not to picture Michael Fassbender (as Carl Jung) whacking the bottom of Keira Knightley (as Sabina Spielrein) and being totally tantalised by her nipples popping out of a corset … such is the power of the visual image, or is it the power of psychoanalysis, or is it more a matter of compulsion being confused with desire, or, more simply is it just two adults in the throws of erotic passion.
While there is no evidence to support the episode of spanking … we assume that it was made up to excite us as moviegoers … Sabina’s very intense diary entries are telling enough. There was desire: desires of the flesh, of the spirit, and of the imagination.
Jung might have wanted to explain himself to Freud by referring to his polygamous tendencies … tendencies that were revealed to him in a dream … but we might want to say otherwise. What about professional and personal responsibilities for instance?
With his use of anima, is Jung, perhaps unconsciously, placing a fig leaf over his more erotic desires.
The work of Eros and Psyche, the work of soul making, is no walk in the park!
But is seems that we have little choice.
William James, writing in 1896, says as much. I paraphrase him:
From our exuberant excess of our subjective propensities we can learn that our desires are to be trusted. Even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide to life and will lead the person to issues entirely beyond his present powers of reckoning.
Prune down her extravagance, sober her, and you undo her.
I put it to you: what chance have we got!
When this sort of desire, a desire of the soul, is ignored, a difficult compulsion enters the psyche and one is undone!
Jung and Sabina:
Was Jung caught in an anima archetype or was he just having fun … indulging his more carnal desires and desires of what else? Power/agency perhaps?
My desire for careful psychological observation suggests that we Jungians tend to, at times, overuse the notion of archetypal forces to explain complex experience. There is always a bit of a problem when you have such a clever theory; it tends to come to mind too easily such that even better explanations are never worked through.
So, was or wasn’t Jung caught up in an anima complex on that particular occasion? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. In saying this I’m not wishing to lessen what I see as his psychological genius.
Perhaps it was his poetic ambiguity at work … and in all psychotherapeutic work we need the poetic simply because the literal or concrete, what one might refer to as the over-rational, will rarely be satisfying.
Reflecting on complex experience tells us that the sense of self, an essentially modern notion, is held together by the thinnest of threads.
In order not to strip bare our psychological life Jung speaks of the many aspects of his inner life: the soul, or psyche, not being singular but akin to an archipelago of islands. And he wants to personify these in mythological language as if they were elements in some beguiling theatrical performance.
Jung, as a conscientious student of the enigma of desire … didn’t wish to over simplify his experiences, inner or outer.
The body, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn, has a mind of its own.
Desire and the poetic
One aim of a poetic attitude is to let it do its work to help us not to rush forward with simple but elegant explanations of complex experience.
Tonight my intent is to linger … and to let the poet help us.
Rainer Maria Rilke takes us into that psychologically intermediate world as he displays the movement of desire and the consequence of compulsion (the failed response to trust desire).
Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on waking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.
Translated by Robert Bly
However the divine might be conceptualised we see in this poem that desire is a move toward the divine.
A psychotherapist, like a poet, must speak the truth even when no one listens.
Otherwise, they are not doing their job and then their job will let them down.
And truth for a psychotherapist is the truth of the soul.
Desire and compulsion keep close company.
Desire is nuanced and has a long and deep history of its own. When the experience of desire withers, we are left with an emptiness that leads to us becoming a kind of machine for pushing forward.
Compulsion is a bow, arrow and target. A purpose-build machine, driving towards – towards what? A compelling behaviour that needs to be accomplished; an intrusive and obsessive thought that has to be entertained or else – what?
The ‘what’ is very important. For, what dream or fantasy are we needing to wrestle with here?
In some paradoxical fashion, the compulsion offers accuracy.
And a sense of accuracy is a compelling goal if ever there was one. Why? Precisely because It is concrete and deals with facts and invites a direct line of action. It has a seductive quality!
But, beware; it has a deadening effect.
Desire, in contrast, engages with the primordial world of image and magic; it links us to our ancestors and the very origins of humanity.
Desire opens us to mystery and myth.
Desire requires hard work; compulsion requires obedience.
All desire is a love poem; all compulsion is cheap and shallow.
Desire is not about love; it is love.
The vitality of desire resides as much in the beat of its rhythms as in its sense of direction, its goal.
Desire belongs more to passionate declamation and ecstatic jubilation, crying and screaming and to the secret whispers of lovers’ lips than to any compelling need for gratification, or happiness, let alone mindless entertainment.
Desire in about mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart … a certain embodied quality… a giving voice to the body … and, in turn, the body giving voice to words and images.
What might I mean by desire having mystery? Desire is a power not a method. It arises from the soles of one’s feet, not from one’s head. A certain religious enthusiasm …
At some stage in my early life I fell in love with desire. I fell in love with the idea of being in love. ‘I fell in love’, that’s the only expression I can think of … and I’m still, at times, at the mercy of this power even though often enough I fall victim to compulsions. I wanted to fly with the angles and I did for a while.
Desire took me to a place of imagining … and with this came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder … we all know, to some degree, this difficult place of desire.
Desire has posture and a subtle
disposition. As the word suggests, compulsion has pushiness,
authority, imposition, and oppression.
Desire and storytelling
How to get at this force I’m calling desire? And, I need to add, not be seduced by it’s attractive, but compulsive, first cousin.
Let me have a go by taking the usual indirect route.
There a certain times in life when an emotional truth is what asked for, in fact, is required, by the circumstances. Such an occasion might be in an adult relationship under stress, an encounter between parent and child, or in a therapy session.
A parent (or therapist) might not hear a child’s true question or might lack an answer.
Such a true question is often spoken
indirectly, in a subtle or veiled manner, as in the poem by
Li-Young Le, which begins:
Sad is the man who is asked for a story
and can’t come up with one.
At the heart of this request is the need for a story … not just any story but a story (or answer) that connects soul with soul. In other words, it needs an emotional truth at its core.
Sad is the man who is asked for a story
and can’t come up with one.
His five-year-old son waits in his lap.
Not the same story, Baba. A new one.
The man rubs his chin, scratches his ear.
In a room full of books in a world
of stories, he can recall
not one, and soon, he thinks, the boy
will give up on his father.
Already the man lives far ahead, he sees
The day this boy will go. Don’t go!
Hear the alligator story! The angel story once more!
You love the spider story. You laugh at the spider.
Let me tell it!
But the boy is packing his shirts,
he is looking for his keys. Are you a god,
The man screams, that I sit mute before you?
Am I a god that I should never disappoint?
But the boy is here. Please, Baba, a story?
It is an emotional rather than logical question,
an earthly rather than heavenly one,
which posits that a boy’s supplications
and a father’s love add up to silence.
Compulsion and denial of desire
As the rap song says … Denial, ain’t just a river in Egypt.
What happens when life calls for desire and we no longer know what it means?
Antonio Machado helps us understand:
The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with the odor of jasmine.
“In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.”
“I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.”
“Well then I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.”
The wind left.
It is as if denial is the history of what we have been obedient to.
The matter of myths
Speaking personally, I was, in my late twenties, keen to demythologise the big myths of our times: Christianity, Marxism, Capitalism, Science, but over time I’ve lost my passion and now leave them largely unquestioned.
Now I find that I can work with the myth of science: of cause and effect and of systems and limitations, and the myth of mystery and the unknown and unknowable. In a manner the two help to navigate the impossible, each serving its own purpose in its own way.
The image of being on the trapeze without any safety net works for me (in earlier days, Roland Barthes offered this image). No longer is there the safety net of a religion, of a way of thinking, but I do have friends and family who hold the ropes all of which help steady my passage, my work.
We humans are in thrall to the belief that our life has a meaning, a meaning beyond our daily survival. Let’s hold on to that belief but hold it tentatively rather than tenaciously.
Jung has often accused of being too caught up in the exciting powers of romantic inwardness. But tonight I want to stress his living-in-the-world-ness.
Jung would, I believe, be one with Wordsworth when he speaks of
“… the very world, which is the world
Of all of us, - the place wherein the end
We find our happiness, or not at all.”
I don’t want to sound like I’m here tonight with a moral purpose … much like a Wesley hymn … No!
So let me quote from that other seeker of wisdom, Mae West:
Too much of a good thing can be a good thing!
And someone said but I’ve forgotten who it was:
Our first principles cannot be proved, they can only be loved!
By way of a conclusion
Everyone came into this room tonight from somewhere and after the talk we will all be going to somewhere. Our desires both direct and trouble us. Who would want it any other way!
One of the traditional endings of a talk such as this was …
This is my story, I’ve told it, and in your hands I leave it.
Carson, A. (1998). Eros the bittersweet. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive
Kerr, J. (193). A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, & Sabina Spielrein. New York, N.Y: Vintage Books.