The Journey into the Unconscious — Part 1, Carl Jung’s Creative Madness

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“Our modern democratic age has manufactured a personal spirituality to meet everyone’s needs which is absolutely guaranteed to be calm, sweet, peaceful, polite, positive, comfortable, reassuring, unthreatening… But this happens to be almost the exact opposite of the ancient understanding — which is that spirituality and the sacred offer the profoundest challenge to our complacency, as well as presenting the most radical threat… It exists to take us into places where thinking becomes useless and even our cleverest ideas are left behind”. In ancient Greece “truth was seen as something extremely painful, even impossible, for most people to bear”.

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This article follows on from , where I prepared the ground for a potentially long series of articles, the central theme of which is the descent into the underworld of the psyche. My starting point was Carl Jung’s ‘Confrontation with the Unconscious’, and here I’ll discuss this in more detail. I’ll refer to four biographies, in order to examine how they describe this period: Frank McLynn¹, Gerhard Wehr², Deirdre Bair³, and Gary Lachman⁴. There is also a fascinating book by Peter Kingsley called Catafalque which, although it contains some biographical material, is rather an attempt to convey to the public what he believes to be the true Jung. That is where the quote above is taken from.

I’ll begin by establishing the historical details of what happened. McLynn says that during 1913–14, there was “a general process of mental disintegration which took him to the edge of the abyss. Jung realized he was suffering from psychic disturbance after a number of dreams and fantasies involving corpses and death”. He then describes and discusses two dreams. “Realizing that if a patient had come to him with these symptoms he would have diagnosed nervous breakdown, Jung determined to engage with his visions and at first tried self-analysis”. “His secret fear was that… what he was experiencing was incipient schizophrenia”.

However, “by the late summer of 1913 he had resisted the temptation to turn inwards sufficiently to be able to deal with life in the external world… Yet the return to the ‘normal’ world did not reassure him as much as he had hoped… At various times Jung felt that his unconscious was on the point of overwhelming and subduing his conscious, which would make him like the poor creatures he had tended in the Burghölzi (mental asylum)”. Presumably believing that he could not carry on like this indefinitely, “he decided to carry the fight over into the enemy’s territory by plunging into the ‘dark continent’ of the unconscious. He noted the exact date when he ‘let himself go’: it was 12 December 1913” (p233–236).

On this theme Gerhard Wehr says: “He was ready to lay himself open to the flood of imaginations, fantasies, and dreams, to begin his journey to the other side… Jung meant to conceive what happened during these months a scientific and medical experiment on himself… but his predicament took on unexpected dimensions”. He then quotes Jung: “I was sitting at my desk once more, thinking over my fears. Then I let myself drop. Suddenly it was as though the ground literally gave way beneath my feet, and I plunged down into dark depths. I could not fend off a feeling of panic” (p178–9).

This period continued until 1918, thus lasted about four years. Now we have to understand what it consisted of, although I won’t be discussing the actual content of Jung’s visions. (This can be found in his two accounts, the somewhat sanitised summary that appears in Memories, Dreams, Reflections⁶, and the full-blown account that appears in The Red Book⁷.) As I noted in the introduction: “Those hostile to Jung have suggested that he was certifiably schizophrenic from 1913–1918, and we can therefore discount his post-Freudian ideas, as they are the product of madness” (McLynn, p240). Jung himself, however, said that this inner journey was highly significant for his inner development, and the inspiration for the remainder of his life’s work. On that theme Gary Lachman says that “The Red Book was the source of everything that followed, and the ideas he is famous for today — the collective unconscious, the archetypes, individuation — all emerged, he said, from the slime and egg shell of this strange birth” (p215).

Next I’ll outline what the various authors have to say about the interplay of these two contradictory understandings, beginning with Jung himself. He said: “It is of course ironical that I, a psychiatrist, should at almost every step of my experiment have run into the same psychic material which is the stuff of psychosis as is found in the insane. This is the fund of unconscious images which fatally confuse the mental patient. But it is also the matrix of a mythopoeic imagination which has vanished from our rational age”⁸.

Deirdre Bair tells us that R. F. C. Hull, Jung’s translator and friend, was trusted to read The Red Book. He concluded that “Jung was a walking asylum in himself, as well as its head physician”. He thought The Red Book offered ‘the most convincing proof that Jung’s whole system is based on psychotic fantasies — which of course it is — and therefore the work of a lunatic’. But he was also aware that ‘only the wounded physician heals’ and that Jung was a ‘medicine man’ in a long line of ‘shamans’ who understood ‘madness, and can heal it, because at periods they are half-mad themselves’ ”.

I’ll focus next on what Jung needed in order to survive this experience; in short this was an enormously strong ego. Bair continues: “Reading The Red Book raised Hull’s admiration for Jung because of what he had been strong enough to put himself through”. She then quotes Hull: “He went through everything an insane person goes through… Had it not been for his astounding capacity to stand off from those experiences, to observe and to understand what was happening, he would have been overwhelmed by the psychotic material that came through the ‘dividing-wall’. His achievement lay in hammering that material into a system of psychotherapy that worked”⁹.

One of the most extraordinary features of this period was that Jung somehow managed to continue to function in the world. He said: “It was most essential for me to have a normal life in the real world as a counterpoise to that strange inner world. My family and my profession remained the base to which I could always return, assuring me that I was an actually existing, ordinary person. The unconscious contents could have driven me out of my wits. But my family and the knowledge: I have a medical diploma from a Swiss university, I must help my patients, I have a wife and five children, I live at 228 Seestrasse in Küsnacht — these were actualities which made demands upon me and proved to me again and again that I really existed, that I was not a blank page whirling about in the winds of the spirit”¹⁰.

McLynn says that Jung “survived madness by the skin of his teeth… For at least four years he lived in a state of constant tension and near-breakdown, and he often reflected, with justifiable pride, that it was only his immense toughness that pulled him through”. This was because he managed to control his fantasy figures: “they did not become his masters as would have been the case in full-blown schizophrenia… They remained as characters in his drama, where in madness he would have been a character in theirs” (p241, p238).

He refers to the material about Jung’s everyday life I just mentioned, then adds a significant detail: “Most of all, it was the dedication and commitment of his mistress Toni Wolff that pulled him through. Apparently, when Jung first took the fall into the land of the dead, and was engulfed by near-madness, a number of his mistresses vied with each other to help him. But only Toni Wolff was successful, at great cost to herself”.

Regarding this period, Peter Kingsley makes statements similar to those of the biographers, but adds another extraordinary detail, referring to “Jung’s own account of how he literally had to cling on to the table in front of him to stop himself from falling apart… And perhaps only another person who also has been forced to hold on to reality by grabbing at a piece of furniture will appreciate exactly what kinds of states Jung was grappling with” (p21–22). He therefore describes Jung as “a man with an unbreakable ego who, through sheer conscious force or will power, was always in command and knew how to keep everything under control… Never for a single moment was his sanity in doubt”; he was “a man consciously, triumphantly, taking his stand against the unconscious and winning out against it”.

He goes on to note the words Jung actually used to describe what helped him survive — “dämonische Kraft”, a daimonic power or force. He says that the word ‘daimonic’ would have had a precise meaning for Jung: “what’s divine in us, or as good as divine… It comes from somewhere else, is irresistible… Jung is not talking about his personal, conscious, human powers at all… it’s the power which is non-human and beyond human consciousness, or mastery or control, that takes care of everything… (Performing his everyday tasks) required a superhuman force… Only what’s beyond human inside a human can stand up to the divine” (p87–89).

Kingsley adds one more interesting detail that I haven’t read elsewhere. Jung told his friend James Kirsch that “during the years in which he received the revelations, i.e., from 1912 to 1916, his face became quite luminous, radiant, like that of Moses, and that people were afraid to look at him” (p378). If this is true, then it would suggest that a daimonic power was indeed helping Jung.

Kingsley is also privileged to have access to some source material unavailable elsewhere (as far as I can tell). Noting that various Jung experts rally round to deny Jung’s ‘madness’, he refers to “someone vastly more familiar than any of them with the actual, lived experience of insanity (who) not only documented Jung’s steady journey of descent to ‘the brink of madness’. He also documented how carefully Jung’s students, family, followers covered up what happened during the most intense and formative times of his life by creating a pious fiction that bears no resemblance to the reality”.

He is referring to the psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who wrote an account of Jung’s encounter with madness. As I said, this seems to be unavailable to the public. Kingsley’s reference reads: “G. F. Nameche and R. D. Laing, Jung and persons: a study in genius and madness [University of Glasgow special collections, MS Laing A3]; for the origins and composition of this unpublished typescript, see Nameche On the origins of this book [ibid., MS Laing A6)”. (If any reader has a copy, or knows how to access it, I would be extremely grateful if you would let me know.)

That is a fitting place to conclude this article, because Laing’s ideas on this theme will be the subject of the next one.

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“This insanity is just what’s needed because ‘there is one indispensable, although strange and hidden work you have to do in secret: your most important work, your masterpiece’. This is the inner work you have to do before you can ever discover your outer work in life. It’s the work that you need to do, not for the sake of the people around you — but for the sake of the dead ‘who demand the work of atonement’ and won’t let you live until you do it” (Kingsley, p184).

Carl Gustav Jung

Footnotes:

1. Carl Gustav Jung: a Biography, Bantam, 1996

2. Jung: a Biography, Shambhala, 2001

3. Jung: a Biography, Little, Brown and Company, 2003

4. Jung the Mystic: The Esoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung’s Life and Teachings, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2010

5. Catafalque Press, 2021

6. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Collins Fount Paperbacks, 1977

7. edited and introduced by Sonu Shamdasani, W. W. Norton & Company, 2009

8. as footnote 6, p213

9. as footnote 3, p292–3

10. as footnote 6, p214

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