Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Short Jungian Interlude 1


Carl Jung with superimposed Mandala
Anyone who is accustomed to reading these pages will know my favourite authors, the ones I return to again and again.  The great twentieth century psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Gustave Jung (1875-1961) is one of those heroes.  This short interlude, then, is my reaction to having sat down and read his short and brilliant classic The Undiscovered Self  (Routledge, London and New York, 1957, 2010) this morning.  It is so short and readable that reading it in one session is eminently achievable.

This book was written in 1957 at the height of The Cold War which is adverted to throughout the text.  There are also many references to The Iron Curtain.  In a sense, then, one could say that it is very much a dated book.  However, as Jung always has exceptionally brilliant and eminently illuminating insights into the psyche to offer his readers, this short book is a psychological classic that offers universal and time-transcending truths.

Another important fact to mention about this little classic is that, unlike the majority of Jung's writings, this book can be easily accessed by the general public as it contains virtually no technical jargon.  Hence, it is a good book to start with if you are coming to Jung's own writings for the first time.  Also, at this stage in my career and life I am well used to reading works translated from the German which can often render the English somewhat stilted and strained.

I liked the title of the first chapter, namely "The Plight of the Individual in Modern Society" which also situates this book very much in the 1950s.  At this time the contemporary writers in philosophy were such luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960).  These writers and others spoke about the alienation of man from his real self.  It is interesting that Jung refers to absolutely no writer from the field of philosophy or indeed psychology/psychiatry for that matter.  This is in no way surprising, as this book is essentially an introduction to his own thoughts on the human being, on the soul or on the self or the psyche (he makes distinctions between these terms later in the book).  It is also worth noting that Jung was 82/83 when he wrote this little classic.  Hence, it is a wise book written by an old man reflecting deeply on his experiences.

The Superficiality of Knowledge of Self:

An Hindu Mandala
Jung argues in the first chapter that most people confuse "self-knowledge" with knowledge of their conscious ego personalities. (See op.cit., p. 3)  Now, Jung as an early disciple of Freud had long believed with his mentor that we know more than we are aware of about ourselves, that is, that much of our identity as individuals is buried in our unconscious and was consequently not available to the conscious mind.  With his mentor, he also would have believed that the goal of all kinds of psychotherapy was the making of unconscious motivations conscious:

People measure their self-knowledge by what the average person in their social environment knows of himself, but not by the real psychic facts which are for the most part hidden from them.  (Ibid., p. 4) 
The Average Man or Woman:

Without a doubt averages are very important in mathematics, physics and economics and certainly in psychometric testing.  However, Jung is quick to point out that such statistics are redundant, even quite irrelevant, when one is presented with a real live patient in the surgery or consultation room.  Again he mentions that most medical doctors, who certainly will know all their medical facts and figures, will also understand that individuals differ.  In short they are unique.  Let us return to the author's own words here:

Not to put too fine a point on it, one could say that the real picture consists of nothing but exceptions to the rule, and that, in consequence, absolute reality has predominantly the character of irregularity.

These considerations must be borne in mind whenever there is talk of a theory serving as a guide to self-knowledge.  There is and can be no self-knowledge based on theoretical assumptions, for the object of self-knowledge is an individual - a relative exception and an irregular phenomenon.  (Ibid., p. 5)
Jung maintains that scientific education is based "in the main on statistical truths and abstract knowledge."  The view of the human being, given by science, is consequently rational, dry and unrealistic.  He calls the individual in this book "an irrational datum," which doubtless s/he is.  This "irrational datum" is "the true and authentic carrier of reality, the concrete man as opposed to the unreal ideal or normal man" of science. (See ibid., pp. 6-7)

The State as Absolute:

Jung argues that what is lacking is an authentic experience of the unconscious, that aspect of the individual that makes him uniquely who he is.  Indeed, he contends that the individual of today is an anonymous social unit, a virtual slave of the state.  He is part of a mass-minded society and his goals and meaning no longer lie in his own psychological and moral development, but rather are determined by the external policy of the state.  In this way the individual feels very impotent indeed.  In consequence of such impotence, powerlessness and lostness, he is rendered more and more dependent on external definitions of self - definitions offered by the State and its many sundry organs.  In this set up, the individual is rendered diminished in all aspects of his nature as a human being. All ethics and morality, therefore, come from the laws and edicts of the State:

The moral responsibility of the individual is then inevitably replaced by the policy of the State (raison d'état).  Instead of moral and mental differentiation of the individual you have public welfare and the raising of the living standard.  The goal and meaning of individual life (which is the only real life) no longer lie in individual development but in the policy of the State, which is thrust upon the individual from outside and consists in the execution of an abstract idea which ultimately tends to attract all life to itself.  The individual is increasingly deprived of the moral decision as to how he should live his own life, and instead is ruled, fed, clothed and educated as a social unit... State policy decides what shall be taught and studied...  (Ibid., pp.  8-9)
Unconscious Forces at Work:

As I said above, this book was written in 1957 at the height of the Cold War.  Jung was consequently very conscious of the oppression of the totalitarian régime of The Soviet Union where the State certainly exercised extreme control over its citizenry to the point that they were mere automata or cogs in the huge State Machine, to use a rather simplistic metaphor.  He points out rather insightfully that such one-sidedness as exhibited in the suppression of rights and freedoms is "always compensated psychologically by unconscious subversive tendencies."  (Ibid., p. 9)

Our scholarly psychiatrist goes on to argue that where huge masses of people are present, as in the former Soviet Union, the sense of the individual disappears and that one of the chief factors for this "psychological mass-mindedness" is scientific rationalism.  This mass-mindedness, a word I love and typically German, robs the individual of his dignity:

As a social unit he has lost his individuality and become a mere abstract number in the bureau of statistics... The bigger the crowd the more negligible the individual becomes.  But if the individual, overwhelmed by the sense of his own puniness (Jung had already mentioned the millions of people who go to make up the population of the Soviet Union) and impotence, should feel that his life has lost its meaning... then he is already on the road to State slavery... But that is just what is happening today: we are all fascinated and overawed by statistical truths and large numbers and are daily apprised of the nullity and futility of the individual personality.  (Ibid., pp 10-11)

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