Madnesses

John Kerr

  • The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement by Richard Noll
    Princeton, 387 pp, £19.95, January 1995, ISBN 0 691 03724 8

It has taken the entire century to bring Freud to the judgment of history. Whatever shall we do about Jung?

His beginnings were not promising and his father frankly worried about him. Dominated by a mother at once unreliable and eerily intimate, the child was an asocial miscreant, rejected by his peers. Home was no better – the atmosphere was ‘unbreathable’ – and when he could not escape to the countryside the boy began to explore his own interior. The father was chaplain to a nearby mental hospital, and the mother once a patient there, but the boy was too young to know that nervousness ran on both sides of his family and that inwardness was not a proper tack for a child with ‘hereditary taint’.

Imagination proved an ally. To relieve periodic choking fits he took to visualising golden angels against a blue background. And there were spaces inside spaces where one might be safe. He carved a tiny mannikin, hid it beneath the attic floorboards, and for a year ritually presented the little man with miniature scrolls written in a secret language.

Guilty in his demeanour when challenged, Jung was a natural target at school. His teachers punished him, the other boys tormented him, and he could find no better solution than to fake dizzy spells so that he might stay at home. He was so convincing in this role that the doctors worried his father into believing he might be incurable. It was too much for a pastor without private funds: ‘I have lost what little I had, and what will become of the boy if he cannot earn his own living?’

More startled than stung, Jung rallied and through sheer will power began to resist the faints, which had taken on a life of their own. It was his first experience of what it was to overcome a neurosis. He grew to the size of a Notre Dame linebacker, as the Harvard psychologist Henry Murray later estimated him, and his classmates learned to tolerate, even like him. Nicknamed ‘Father Abraham’ for his opinions on everything, and finally apprised of the fact that he would have to work if he was to excel, the sermonising Gymnasium student appeared to have found himself at last, but inwardly he still thought of himself as a ‘Corrupt and inferior person’.

His secret hope was to be somebody else. The romance of Jung’s second self, his ‘Personality No 2’, would later dominate his remarkable memoirs, composed in old age with the assistance of Aniela Jaffé and at the instigation of Pantheon’s Kurt Wolff in one of the great publishing coups of the century. But neither Wolff nor Jung was so simple-minded as to think the world wanted to know exactly who ‘Personality No 2’ was. By Jung’s own account, it all began in childhood – while he was being reprimanded by a neighbour for commandeering the fellow’s rowing boat. As he took the scolding, Jung began to feel that he was really somebody else, somebody who had lived a long time ago, somebody very important. A not uncommon family legend for the time had it that Goethe had been Jung’s great-grandfather. What Jung hoped, and sometimes believed, but would never tell for the record, was that he was a reincarnation of Goethe.

It did make sense. Had not Goethe winced at the sight of a crucifix? Had not Goethe known the sufferings of the inner self? Had not Goethe celebrated temptation and somehow made the world believe that one could find redemption that way? But it was no easy business to be Goethe. One should not disbelieve the statements of Jung’s memoirs, the first three chapters especially, which make it plain that adolescence continued to be a struggle and that keeping in meaningful contact with ‘Personality No 2’ was difficult.

‘The boy is interested in everything imaginable,’ his father commented within earshot, ‘but he does not know what he wants.’ Jung let his classmates think he might go into literature, but he opted for science, more properly for medicine, the safest road for a scholarship student to take. In his college years he took up the study of the occult by participating in séances with the secret connivance of his mother and by special courtesy of a teenage cousin who was in love with him and who could contact the illustrious ancestors of both sides of the family. In a past life, she had been Goethe’s mistress, and in yet another past life, mother to a previous incarnation of Jung.

College life had its own lessons. He learned through experience to moderate his alcohol intake and learned, too, that he could now read Nietzsche without risking his own sanity. His father died during the first year, leaving Jung the man of the house, but he returned regularly in Jung’s dreams, leaving Jung too embarrassed to tell him he was dead. Thereafter, Jung seriously wondered about survival beyond the grave. ‘He died in time for you,’ was the mother’s comment.

The proportions of ‘Jung’ could already be outlined. At the student drinking and literary society, he expounded on philosophy and science; among his favourite targets were the liberal Protestant theology of Albrecht Ritschl and the biological materialism of ‘the Berlin Jew’, the physiologist Emil DuBois-Reymond. As for making his living, he ultimately settled on psychiatry after reading in Krafft-Ebing’s textbook that it was a field where theory still bore the personal stamp of the author.

Jung arrived at the Burghölzli hospital on 10 December 1900. Thus began what could have been the greatest psychiatric career of the 20th century. No account of Jung is adequate that does not take note of how gifted he was in his chosen profession. He was an intuitive type, by his own later definition. He was sensitive to the point of clairvoyance and to the point where he had sometimes to protect himself from the company of people. He was also a voracious reader who could consume and retain huge tracts of literature. He had a commanding personal presence, instant authority and seemingly limitless physical energy.

As an endeavour psychiatry is necessary, tortuous and grimly paradoxical. What is dispensed is not sanity, but madness. The healing art consists in finding a kind of madness that the patient – and neighbours and family – can live with. Few men have possessed the sort of talent that Jung brought to this delicate, but potent encounter: the young R.D. Laing to a great degree, Harry Stack Sullivan when he was in the mood, D.W. Winnicott with children, and very few others. The patients loved Jung; staff were in awe.

For most of this century, the kind of madness people have been willing to settle for has involved such things as guilty childhood secrets, terrible traumas and the irrationality of sexual desire. More recently, chemical imbalances have also become acceptable. But at the beginning of the century, madness meant hereditary taint, nervous fatigue, endogenous toxins and the like, all girded around by a strange nomenclature and informed by the deepest resignation. Jung the psychiatrist was at the very heart of the movement from one kind of madness to another: the historical moment amplified his gifts.

The career was meteoric. It took Jung only six years to become internationally known for his pioneering work with the word-association test. An ordinary medical term, ‘complex’, took on a new meaning and became a commonplace. Jung held the copyright. Professionally, his opinions were sought on subjects ranging from the Ganser syndrome to schizophrenia. It was universally assumed that when his chief, Eugen Bleuler, retired, Jung would take over the Zürich chair in psychiatry and the directorship of the Burghölzli hospital.

What happened instead is well known: Jung bolted. A question that is not usually asked, but should be, is why he elected to join forces with Freud when he did. Jung certainly didn’t need to. One answer is that he was still trying to discover a reliable way of making contact with Personality No 2 – and for a time he thought Freud could help him. Then, too, as Freud was becoming controversial thanks to the Dora case, Jung could now play rebel on a grand scale.

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