Monday, January 7, 2013

Jung's Gnosticism and the Modern Condition

Besides the many books that he published, psychotherapist and mythographer Carl Jung also wrote one that never saw the light of day. The Red Book was a hand-written, illuminated manuscript in which Jung recorded certain visions and dreams of his own in which, he thought, he had received revelation about the true state of the universe. Jung's son and executor refused to let it be published, which led to all sorts of rumors about its content. Once the son was dead, though, the forces of capitalism and scholarship went to work on the Jung Foundation, and now The Red Book has at last been published.

According to Catholic historian David Bentley Hart, it was withheld by Jung's family not because it is shocking but because it is embarrassing, and I suspect he is right.
The official story of the book’s genesis is that Jung began receiving revelations in 1913, when he was thirty-eight years old, beginning with three premonitory trances in which he twice saw a great flood inundating Europe and once saw something like rivers of blood glowing on the far horizon. He would have dismissed the episodes as symptoms of mental fatigue had not the onset of war the next year convinced him that they had been genuine auguries of the future. So he undertook to lay open his thoughts to whatever other messages his unconscious mind might care to send him and soon began suffering terrifying and absorbing visions and auditions (and, apparently, the odd paranormal event), which he called his “active imaginings,” but which he sometimes feared might be signs of incipient psychosis. 
Hart adds, "Some of that may be true."

As Hart describes them, Jung's visions sound like a cross between Dante's Divine Comedy and bad Dungeons and Dragons:
Along the way, he encounters a succession of allegorical figures who, we are informed, are not merely fictions of his own devising, but real and autonomous powers dwelling in the depths of his psyche. The most important of these is Jung’s special spirit-guide, Philemon, an ancient magician with a flowing white beard, a kingfisher’s wings, and the horns of a bull. Jung also meets a woman who turns out to be his own soul personified; the hero Siegfried, whom he rather discourteously murders; a bird-girl; a one-eyed tramp dying by the wayside; a jocund rider in red who reveals himself to be the devil (and who helps put Jung in touch with his vegetative side); a heretical Christian anchorite from the Libyan desert; a huge, horned, axe-wielding god named Izdubar (or Gilgamesh) who has been made lame by the “terrible magic” of science and whom Jung reduces to the size of an egg and places in his pocket; the Cabiri (ancient Greek chthonic deities), who are really only subterranean gnomes; the disembodied shade of Christ; and so on.
Jung was very interested in the Gnostics of late antiquity, and his visions are, says Hart, "saturated" with Gnostic imagery and sensibility. Like the Gnostics, Jung longed to find the secret knowledge that would allow him to somehow get beyond the visible world and grasp the true order of the universe. But unlike them, he did not equate that order with God. This very much offends Hart. Jungs visions, he says, are
almost wholly devoid of the special pathos that is the most enchanting, sympathetic, and human aspect of ancient Gnosticism: the desperate longing for escape, for final liberation, for a return to the God beyond.
And this is where Hart lost me. I can certainly believe that Jung's manuscript is nonsense on stilts; after all, much of the stuff he published while he was alive was awfully bad. Like the strange brews that spilled from Swedenborg, Blavatsky, and all the rest of their dreaming ilk, I am sure that Jung's symbolic universe would leave me cold. Or laughing.

But I, of course, sympathize with Jung's refusal to equate the order of the universe with a loving god, and what's more I don't see anything nihilistic about the direction of his thought. Hart, as a Christian, seems to assume that any philosophy without a loving god, and without eternal bliss for the saved, is empty or trivial:
Our spiritual disenchantment today may in many ways be far more radical than even that of the Gnostics: We have been taught not only to see the physical order as no more than mindless machinery, but also to believe (or to suspect) that this machinery is all there is. Our metaphysical imagination now makes it seem quite reasonable to conclude that the deep disquiet of the restless heart that longs for God is not in fact a rational appetite that can be sated by any real object, but only a mechanical malfunction in need of correction. Rather than subject ourselves to the torment and disappointment of spiritual aspirations, perhaps we need only seek an adjustment of our gears. Perhaps what we require to be free from illusion is not escape to some higher realm, but only reparation of the psyche, reintegration of the unconscious and the ego, reconciliation with ourselves—in a word, therapy. . . .

This, at least, is the troubling prospect that The Red Book poses to my imagination. It may truly be possible for an essentially gnostic contempt for the world to be inverted into a vacuous contentment with the world’s ultimate triviality.
But, I want to know, what is wrong with trying to set our own minds in order, the dreaded process that Hart calls "therapy" as if that were a terrible insult? And why does a world without a personal, caring sort of god have to be trivial, vacuous, or even troubling?

I, on the contrary, find the Christian vision of heaven to be very troubling -- if you ask me, it is simply not possible to both remain human and know more than momentary bliss -- and the notion that a caring god allows things to go to hell on earth to be even more troubling. I have never thought that the postulate of a caring creator solved any problem, whether in philosophy, cosmology or ethics. It is indeed very interesting that so many humans long restlessly for god -- but then many, like me, do not, and I fail to see why Hart's longings should reveal more about the nature of the universe than mine do. Whatever that longing is, it certainly says nothing in particular about the nature of the deity longed for, since humanity's gods have taken so many different forms over even the brief millennia of our historical memory.

I would ask Hart this: the universe contains about five hundred billion galaxies, each with millions of stars and planets. Life, for all we know, may abound throughout it, and there may be millions of alien civilizations scattered across its immensity. You, like me, were given the chance to know life on a beautiful blue planet in one corner of that immensity, to see lightning arc across the sky and living flowers grow from dead ground, to love and wonder and suffer and triumph and die. And yet you seem to think that without god, heaven, and hell, this is all trivial. How?

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