Carl Jung and the experience of depression
Carl Jung wrote fleetingly about depression and melancholia and when he did … it was brief and seemingly tangential.
I’m intrigued … Why was this so?
Freud wrote his classic study Mourning an Melancholia in 1915. Where is Jung’s study? By the 1950’s, depression and anxiety where topics on everyone’’ lips… and still Jung is silent.
If there is a reason for this, what is it?
I am taking these questions both seriously … and imaginatively. What is it that Jungian psychology can claim to know about the experience of depression?
What kind of object is ‘depression’ … for Jung or for me as a Jungian psychologist?
What might be the nature of the relationship that the Jungian has with this most testing of experiences?
Jung’s early psychological life
To say that Jung had an active inner life as he was growing up would be an understatement.
Jung had a felt-sense that he could trust his dreams and his reveries; all aspects of his psychological life were unquestionably meaningful.
As an adolescent he experienced himself as having two personalities, which he named number 1 and number 2. Number 1 was on the here-and-now, the external schoolboy who did all the usual schoolboy things. Number 2 was deeply connected to the past; inward looking and characterised by a sense of deep solitude coupled with a feeling of communion with nature and the cosmos.
Not only did he experience multiple aspects of his psyche as a university student, he attended séances in which his cousin, Helene, assumed different personalities representing dead relatives.
In his medical dissertation he went on to explore the psychogenesis of these same phenomena. Psychogenesis being the study of where is this phenomenon coming from, what are its characteristics and how is it manifested in particular individuals.
It is this disposition (the where, the what and the how) toward psychological states – so-called normal and abnormal - that remained his professional hallmark throughout his life.
At the psychiatric clinic of the University of Zürich, the Burghölzli, Jung articulated his understanding of the intelligibility of psychotic behaviour (delusions and the like) and asserted the ordinariness of mental illness and that the symptoms, strange thought they might be, were “merely an exceptional reaction to emotional problems”(CW 3, §339).
Jung’s first major work (1911 and 1912), Symbols of Transformation (the German title, in English, is Transformations and Symbols of the Libido), marked his transition from a clinician/researcher to that of a public intellectual.
Jung’s fist chapter was entitled: Two kinds of thinking (directed thinking and dreaming or symbolic thinking).
He had been engrossed in the study of mythology and now it had come to fruition: Not just in an intellectual sense but, importantly, in a deeply personal manner.
The fantastic figures of the gods and goddesses, the personalities of any myth took up residence, as it were, in his psyche.
The continued presence of mythological themes in our dreams and reveries, the activities of everyday life, were the symbols of the libido … how the psyche expressed itself.
Each psychological complex was a drama with its roots in the primordial past.
In his clinical practice he began to see how the experience of therapist and patient was a dynamic interplay of the therapist’s myth (whether she was aware of it or not) and the patient’s myth (whether he knew it or not). The therapeutic work became a co-creation of sorts with both current and mythic dimensions.
Jung’s emphasis on the part played by the clinician’s personal myth, his personal equation, is foundational in developing our understanding of Jung and his relationship to depression.
The other foundation stones being: the multiplicity of the psyche and the mythic dimension of our troubling experiences.
The individual remains the focus of attention and not the diagnosis ... the individual and the psychogenesis (psychological origin) of his/her symptoms.
A psychology of complexes and not of illness
A characteristic of Jung’s writings is that he worked at avoiding singular definitions and definitive statements of the psychological life.
His preferred approach was to walk around a psychological experience, a circumambulatory approach. And the result was to see the experience of depression as one or more psychological complex.
So, no positioning of terms such as ‘melancholia’ or ‘depression’!
For Jung a complex was a dynamic network of images and ideas shaped by an archetypal driving force (an emotion and a feeling).
German psychiatry in the late 1800s was very concerned with the description and classification of psychological disorders. The most prominent figure in this frame was Emil Kraepelin.
Kraepelin’s textbook, first published in 1883 and its final edition in 1929, would become the bible up until the event of the famed Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorder (DSM) in 1952.
In 1952 there were 106 diagnoses of mental disorders. By 2013, the time of the 5th edition, the number had grown to 649.
It is hard to believe that this is a six-fold increase in knowledge and understanding.
The experience of depression (through the eyes of a Jungian)
In 2016 it strikes me that we are stuck with the term (depression). So let’s see how we might get our heads around it without giving in to all the entailments that the term implies. How to use the term without simply being uncritical or intellectually lazy?
So, to begin, and to paraphrase Leo Tolstoy … every depressed person is depressed in his or her own, very idiosyncratic, way.
And, because we are not able to get inside another’s head and body, it is impossible to know the experience. At best we get a hint, a description of sorts, a bit like a line drawing. And here I’m reminded of how Paul Klee saw drawing … as a way of taking a line for a walk.
Not just any sort of walk … any drawing of depression is a way of taking the experiences of loss and love on a long, languorous stroll.
And on this walk we engage in the drama of the disturbed life … the drama of love and betrayal, of will and desire, of lust and loss.
The soul in anguish
Some of the post Jungians, namely, James Hillman and Lionel Corbett, want to be more specific than Jung.
Hillman refers to living in the vale of tears. That space which is directionless and where any vision of a way out is absent.
Corbett insists that there is an inevitability of the soul in anguish (title of his most recent book).
Our depressed experience is the experience of the loss of effectiveness of whatever ‘contract’ we think we have with life or the imagined powers of the universe. This version of magical thinking inevitably leads to the experience of depression.
I offer a poem by the Spaniard, Antonio Machado (1912):
How might our ancestors have experienced depression?
‘Consciousness’ clearly has an evolutionary advantage. My hypothesis is that depression and anxiety are constituent aspects of consciousness. In saying this I’m asserting that the experience of depression has been with us from the beginning of history.
How might we obtain even a glimmer of an idea of how our ancestors experienced depression?
The stories that gave meaning to the daily experience of our ancestors are now called myths. Spoken stories that were told and re-told across the various communities where humans had settled.
One of the tasks that I have set myself, following the mythologist Carl Kerényi, is to read into the documented ancient mythic stories and glean what I can about the experience of living, specifically, the experience of living when inexpressible loss and catastrophic sadness are being talked about.
How the stories of inexpressible loss and catastrophic sadness were woven into the fabric of lived consciousness.
My main sources for this enquiry are the work of Carl Kerényi. Kerényi was a contemporary and co-author with Jung.
The Gods of the Greeks (Kerényi, 1951) is Kerényi’s mythology for adults.
His intention was to give a psychological understanding of Greek mythology (i.e., neither a romantic or a dumbed-down version of the stories).
In his Introduction he tells the reader that images are the stuff of mythology. Starting with fragments of ancient text he begins to re-create stories of rich, complex, and ambivalent emotional life.
The words ‘depression’ and ‘melancholia’, those abstractions of the intellect, are not to be found in these stories.
What we have are personalities, Gods and Goddesses doing their stuff.
Especially, we have the Orphic tradition and so, in therapy, I will speak of Dionysus, Demeter and Persephone who are named by Kerényi as the subterranean ancestors of humankind.
Historically, we imagine ourselves back in the pre-Greek times (XX –XIV centuries BCA).
We find ourselves in the Mycenaean era, in Minoan Crete and Samaria, which preceded the Greek culture by 7-8 centuries.
Orpheus taught an Eleusian-type mystery religion and all of this was happening before the Trojan War.
Orpheus was one of those personalities (real or presumed to be real) that the Greek civilisation inherited from a stratum preceding its own culture.
Orpheus has symbolised for, let’s round off at 4,000 years, a reality (call it mystery or magic) that acted to bridge the sense of the divine and the experience of the mundane.
Or in today’s language: the imaginal life and the life of the sense.
These archaic fragment of narrative focused on the Great Mother mysteries and not on those of the classical Greek era when heroes and battles were the themes and, perforce, the stories were more linear and marched to the rhythm of more masculine drumbeats.
Placing our experience of depression in the archetypal domain implies that images of Dionysus come into focus.
Any engagement with Dionysus is bound to come across as distinctly countercultural.
I say this because we have so thoroughly identified with the Christian story of death and then resurrection: death being the pathway to new life.
A more contemporary archetypal witness
One of the reasons George Eliot’s Middlemarch is such a fine psychological work is that it does not pander to our vanity; it is not a drama of relationships that drives to an inevitable happy ending; you know the sort … lovers united, villains sorted out, intrigues exposed.
No, Middlemarch is not even a single narrative but, rather, several different stories of disappointment and accommodation.
If this sounds depressing, it is! Middlemarch shows the difference between a heroic narrative with the ego as centre stage and a psyche constituted of many selves.
There is something important about our makeup and our culture that encourages, and supports, the creation of a number of bubbles of belief.
Each bubble is based on a key relationship and a core belief about that relationship.
Our relationship with the matter of love is a big one: what it feels like; how it should feel; how it should deepen; and, how, after all the inevitable ups and downs, it should finally be transformed. An example of such a bubble is that life is self-correcting: the good get rewarded and the bad are punished. Eventually, good will prevail. Jungians are subject to their own bubble, their particular resurrection story: a version of attaining enlightenment.
Then, along comes someone, who could easily be oneself, and pricks the bubble. This is how life happens: our actual lived experience is built on a number of disappointments and accommodations. Inevitably we feel sad … sadness is a normal consequence of being in any relationship.
Bentall, R. P. (2003). Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature, London: Penguin
Eliot, G. Middlemarch
Freud, s. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia, 14, CW, London: Hogarth Press, 237-218
Healey, D. (2008). Mania: A Short History of Bipolar Disorders, Baltimore: John Hopkins University
Hillman, J. (1976). Suicide and the Soul, Dallas: Spring
Jung, C.G. (1976). C.G. Jung Letters. Vol. 2 (1951-1961), Ed Gerhard Adler, Trans. R.F.C. Hull, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
Kerényi, C. (1951). The Gods of the Greeks, London: Thames & Hudson
Miller, E. P. (2014). Head Cases: Julia Kristeva on Philosophy and Art in Depressed Times, New York: Columbia University
Paris, G. (1990). Pagan Graces: Dionysos, Hermes, and goddess Memory in Daily Life, Dallas; Spring Publications
Salvatore, G. (2004). Orpheus before Orpheus: The myth of the Magic Citharode, in Spring 71, Orpheus, Spring Journal, Fall, 2004, pp. 171-191